From various creatures of the ocean deep in Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters to the untimely and homicidal death of Mr. Wickham in P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, the literary works of Jane Austen continue to inspire the writers of today. With Longbourn, author Jo Baker throws her own hat into the ring with a unique take on that well-known story, Pride and Prejudice.
The setting is the same as the original story, the country estate of the Bennet family named Longbourn, but it is the protagonist that is quite different: a young servant of the Bennet household by the name of Sarah. Through her viewpoint, the reader is provided a decidedly different picture of the Bennet family and their lives than the one that was penned by Ms. Austen.
As with the original, Jane Bennet takes long walks and reads, Mrs. Bennet gossips and plots marriage arrangements, the youngest daughters giggle together while speculating on romances, balls are attended, and dinner is served daily. But what was required “below stairs” to create and maintain this existence for the Bennet family? Through extensive research of the time period, Ms. Baker is able to provide an accurate description of the endless, difficult, and oftentimes unpleasant tasks that servants of this period faced each and every day, which will be of particular interest to fans of Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and the like.
Those sojourns through the English countryside, for example, enjoyed so much by Ms. Bennet and that so endeared her to the reader are seen quite differently by the servants, as Sarah ruminates:
“The petticoat had been three inches deep in mud when she’d retrieved it from the girls’ bedroom floor…the soap was not shifting the mark, but it was biting into her hands, already cracked and chapped and chilblained, making them sting. If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”
While daily life of nineteenth century rural England is a prominent and fascinating feature of this novel, it is not the primary focus; rather, the personal intrigues of the original cast of characters and their servants (along with some newcomers imagined by Ms. Baker) provide the reader with the storylines that supply the most entertainment and surprise.
With the plethora that currently exists of novels written by contemporary authors who do homage to the works of Jane Austen, those readers interested in this type of fiction have many options. In Longbourn, Ms. Baker has added an additional title to this genre that is distinguished from the others with her fresh and inventive look at one of the most enduring works of English literature.
Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill