Jane Austen is a favourite author of mine and, as such, I have always avoided reading any sequels, prequels or retellings of her novels, as I feel they would only disappoint - however Jo Baker's 'Longbourn' is something rather different and I must admit that I was pulled into this book from the very first pages. 'Longbourn' focuses on the lives of the servants who work for the Bennet family (from 'Pride and Prejudice') and the story is told almost entirely from the servants' perspective, so there is a lot of gritty 'downstairs' life and very little of the more genteel 'upstairs' variety.
In the servants' quarters we meet our main heroine, the housemaid Sarah, an attractive and determined young woman, similar in age to the older Bennet girls, but obviously leading a very different life. Then there is the cook/housekeeper, Mrs Hill (who has a painful secret she has had to keep hidden for years), her husband, Mr Hill, the butler (a man with secrets of his own) and lastly, twelve-year-old Polly, the kitchen maid. Into their busy, but quiet and uneventful lives arrives a new footman, James Smith, a dark, attractive man with a rather mysterious past, who finds himself falling for Sarah. However, Sarah, although initially attracted to James, feels a little rebuffed by his reluctance to discuss his past life, and consequently she finds herself becoming rather interested in the very good-looking Mulatto manservant, Ptolemy, who works for the Bingleys at Netherfield Park. But what is it that James is trying to hide from Sarah and should Sarah really be considering Ptolemy in a romantic light? (No spoilers, we learn most of this early on in the novel and there is a lot more for prospective readers to discover and enjoy).
This is a very atmospheric and wonderfully described story where the reader follows the servants in their day-to-day work, so we experience Sarah's back-breaking work with the family laundry ("If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields"); we feel the pain of Sarah's chapped and chilblained fingers; we clean and blacklead the grates; we beat the Turkish carpets and sprinkle tea leaves to gather the dust; we even have to empty the evil-smelling chamber pots that the genteel folk upstairs leave for Sarah to dispose of. And, as the author cleverly weaves threads from the original 'Pride and Prejudice' into her story, we also experience certain aspects of Bennet family life and are able to eavesdrop on family conversations, which makes for very entertaining reading.
In addition, Jo Baker is not just adept at describing indoor life - her descriptions of the Hertfordshire countryside were a pleasure to read, and her brief, but powerful depiction of a certain soldier's wartime experiences revealed during the course of the book was an interesting and involving aspect of the story. This, therefore, is a novel which works on different levels: as an exploration of injustice, inequality and poverty, but also as a romantic story of love and loyalty; it's not Jane Austen, of course, but it's not meant to be, and despite my initial misgivings I am pleased to say that I was entertained by this novel and read the entire book in one enjoyable sitting. Attractively presented and with each chapter headed with an extract from the original novel, Jo Baker's 'Longbourn' is a richly imagined story that makes for an engaging weekend, bedtime or anytime read, and one for which the film rights have already been acquired.