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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 30 May 2017
A brilliant work!

It's been wonderful to read a work set in the Regency which is actually about the common people - ie, the well over 98 per cent of the population who were not members of the gentry or connected to the 300 odd titled aristocrats.

The daily grind of servants in a genteel but not greatly wealthy establishment, the menial work, the sordid nature of much of it, including emptying bedpans, washing underwear and menstrual napkins,is unsparingly depicted.

So, if briefly, is the misery caused by the destruction of villages through the enforced enclosures. This, like so many ugly details of early nineteenth century life, is determindly ignored by most writers on the Regency era.

Sarah is a strong and lovable heroine. Even Elizabeth Bennett doesn't outshine her. The male lead is also sympathetic and believable - and so is his rival.

As someone who has never much liked Darcy, I was delighted by the treatment of him in this, the servants' perspective.

However, the final impression of this story is not of squalor and sadness, but of hope and regeneration.

Highly recommended, particularly for those who have a romanticised view of how life was for most people in this era, saying such things as: 'If only I'd lived then' and 'I was born in the wrong age'.
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on 28 September 2017
Longbourn is the house in which Jane Austen set Pride and Prejudice. Jo Baker's novel is the story of the servants who washed the Bennet girls' linen, soothed Mrs Bennet when she was distressed, indulged Mr Bennet when they were obliged to indulge him and all the time carried on with their own unregarded lives.

It is a brilliant premise for a novel and from it Jo Baker has developed a set of characters every bit as absorbing as the family whom they serve. Their lives are painted with compassion but without sentimentality. The fortunes and misfortunes of the Bennets affect them greatly, of course, but it is their own struggle for happiness with which Longbourn is concerned.

Clever though the premise is, it is not the best thing about this book. The best thing is the writing, and , in particular, the description - the eye for small details, the awareness of the sensuality of objects. In beautifully turned prose, the rhythms of domesticity are intertwined with the rhythms of the natural world so effectively as to make you feel like you are actually there, in Longbourn, experiencing the world of the servants with its unceasing demands and stolen compensations. A novel to be savoured .
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on 11 February 2015
An alternative take on the goings-on in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", a 'simultan-uel' if you will, imaginatively seen through the eyes of the help at the Bennet household. Sarah, the teenage housemaid, takes centrestage, and the action happens mostly in the kitchen and servants' quarters while Elizabeth, Jane and their sisters deal with their dramas upstairs in the drawing rooms and parlour. Fans of the original novel will take pleasure in matching the events with this version, from the giddy excitement at the Bingleys' arrival at Netherfield, to Collins's clumsy courtship of Elizabeth, to Lydia's elopement with Wickham, the latter given a meatier and more sinister role that sees him meddling with the lives of the central characters in Baker's narrative.

It is to Baker's credit that she keeps more or less to the tone and language of a Regency novel, and she awakens the reader's consciousness that someone needs to be laundering the Bennet girls' many dresses, curling their hair, sewing rosettes to their dancing shoes, and stoking the fires before dawn, getting chilblains and blisters doing all those chores to make the narrative of "Pride and Prejudice" possible. I found it especially sobering that Liz's memorable trek across the country to be with a sick Jane in P&P that was held up as evidence of her gutsy and selfless spirit came at a cost to her servants, who had to attend to her mud-caked boots and soiled skirts.

With such exhausting detail to remain faithful to Austen's novel, there is a good chance that the novel could fall flat on its face. However, Baker's work succeeds because she is able flesh out her characters well and incorporate them seamlessly into the narrative. Sarah is fully-realised as a budding girl who has aspirations which are contained by the stark realisation of her station in life. The mysterious James Smith, too, who comes to be the Bennet's footman, has a story entwined with the Bennet household and that gives a surprisingly fresh angle to one of the characters originally encountered in P&P. The second half of the novel also turns its focus on the war, which casts a harsh light on the significance of the militia who are stationed in the village, and contrasts itself from the light and bubbly narrative of P&P.
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on 31 May 2014
Jane Austen hardly mentions the family servants in any of her novels, and the characters in Pride and Prejudice have a total lack of care and concern for them, unless of course the washing is late or a dress isn't pressed. Here you see the people who kept those pretty Georgian houses running, pressed into service by poverty and misfortune and only released from it by the caprice of the gentry when they were worn out or their face no longer fitted. The Georgian society of the upper class or even the middling sort is certainly fascinating but these are the broken backs and red-raw hands on which it was built.

I thought the author was too kind to Elizabeth Bennett in suggesting some sort of altruism lay behind the kind words and gestures she kept for some of the servants. She was certainly like that when it suited her own interests, but she really only differed from her family in how she chose to get the best out of the servants. In all respects Elizabeth Bennett was a woman of her time and class.

So was Jane Austen. Her own letters give the name of an odd servant or two: the nanny who took care of her, the lad who collected the letters or the man who drove the coach, and she spares an occasional warm comment for them, but often only when some humour can be got from that comment. Yet you think of the dozens and dozens of servants who over the years worked to make her life pleasant in the houses of her family, and you have to conclude that scarcely one in twenty of those she met were worthy of a name for posterity. If you read Jane Austen, read this book.
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VINE VOICEon 20 August 2014
This is Pride and Prejudice but from the view of the servants who served them at Longbourn, the Bennet family home. Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and cook, her husband, and the housemaids, Sarah and Polly. It is Sarah's story that features most strongly in this book, as she finds herself admired by both Ptolemy Bingley, a footman in the Bingley household, and James Smith, a young man who has turned up at Longbourn and is swiftly employed by Mr Bennet.

I very much liked working out which Pride and Prejudice event was going on in Longbourn. Seen from the viewpoint of the staff made it interesting. I also liked how the story came together and the new stories that Jo Baker has invented. It made me think. However, I did find the writing overall a little on the dull side and I think a bit more of a story was required to make it really work for me. I imagine that the lives of servants in the 1800s wasn't all that thrilling but for the purposes of a good yarn I think a bit more imagining might not have gone amiss.

Overall I thought this was a good read, a really great idea, but just needed a bit more oomph.
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VINE VOICEon 12 April 2014
To be honest, this book is wasted on you if you are not an ardent fan of Pride and Prejudice. You need, like me, to have read P and P several times, to know the characters and the order of events in THAT novel, before you can appreciate the clever way this book is constructed.

For the story of Longbourne runs in parallel with the events of P and P - the arrival of Mr Bingley, the visit of Mr Collins, the ball at Netherfield, and so on, but all seen from the servants' point of view. The famous names from P and P are merely glimpsed in passing, however, as our story here focuses on Sarah, the housemaid, and the two men in her life - the dashing Ptolemy, a footman from Netherfield, and the quiet James, the footman at Longbourne (with a secret background).

I loved the period detail in this story, and the way Sarah's life changed when she fell in love.
The only part I didn't enjoy at all was the tedious section when James was fighing in Spain, during the Peninsular Wars.

It was a slow burner of a tale, but overall I would recommend this book, but only for Austen devotees.
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on 26 May 2014
The events of Pride and Prejudice are seen through the eyes of the servants and although this might seem cosy and sentimental, it isn't. The author is very good on the realities of life in service - the insecurity, the everyday humiliations and the sheer drudgery of it all. I expected to be mildly diverted by this book but in fact, I really enjoyed it. It's very well-written, with good dialogue, believable characters and an audacious twist in the plot that I didn't see coming. It's also very clever, not just in the seamless blending of the two stories but in the way it allows us to see familiar characters in a new light.

In the final section, Jo Baker takes us beyond the events of the original book and for me, this was the weakest part because it became a conventional historical novel with all ends neatly tied. The book just about stands on its own but would mainly appeal to people who are familiar with the work of Jane Austen.
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on 31 August 2017
An interesting take on a well known story. The lives of the servants is described in some detail, and they must have been very hard. It was encouraging to read of Sarah's determination to follow her own path, despite all the difficulties. The lives of the Bennet family, by contrast, seem rather introspective and small-minded, with clearly no understanding of how hard their servants were expected to work.
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on 14 August 2017
A beautifully written, gripping book whose characters draw you in so that you care what happens to them. Jo Baker is a wonderful writer - I have come to Longbourn via A Country Road, A Tree - another fascinating book - completely different, but equally brilliant.
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on 4 August 2017
In this wonderfully lyrical novel Jo Baker takes us behind the mirror into the serpents quarters and we see the events of the Bennett household through the eyes of the servants who inhabit the shadowy world below stairs
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