REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker
Dear Ms. Baker,
Usually when I see a book that is in some way based on Jane Austen’s novels, I shy away from it. Though I’ve only read a fraction of the multitude ones that have been published, I find myself sick to death of variations on Austenlandia – the sequels, the prequels, the paranormal and, slightly less so, the contemporaries. It takes a lot to even get me past the blurb stage but “Longbourn” did it.
What caught my attention and made me pause, then read the book? It’s the downstairs edition for one thing. The other lure was the lone sentence from the book quoted on the back – “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.” That sounded so period but without trying to sound “Regency,” that I said, “Self, let’s give it a whirl.”
This is the Bennet household and daily affairs as seen by their servants and other working class characters. But it’s not just about the Bennets and the events that take place in “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s about the servants’ lives and a servant romance. Older maid Sarah, younger maid Polly, Mr and Mrs. Hill and footman James have their own worries and concerns and only experience the periphery of the lives of their “betters” as I would expect would have actually happened. It’s not that they don’t know most of what’s going on – they do as servants would. They just aren’t “worked into” that story in unrealistic ways.
When the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy appear and interact with the Bennets, it’s the extra workload for the assembly and ball at Netherfield that we see. When the Gardiners arrive to spend time at Longbourn before Jane returns to London with them, it’s the nasty nappies of the youngest child the servants have to deal with that is mentioned. Mr. Collins is someone Mrs. Hill caters to and attempts to prove her housewifely abilities to as he’ll someday be the master of the house and servants can be chucked out of lifetime positions if the new mistress wishes it. When Charlotte Lucas snares a proposal, Mrs. Hill is somewhat relieved because Charlotte has always appreciated the way Mrs. Hill has managed her duties as well as enjoying Mrs. Hill’s lemon tarts. A batch of them sent home with the Lucases after the announcement is the kind of thing she hopes will secure places for all of them in the future.
The hard work done by the household servants isn’t whitewashed. Wash day is a day long chore that begins at 04:30, chamber pots must be carried down and emptied every morning, call bells can interrupt any activity and the trays carried up for meals are heavy. It’s more obvious to me now why servants were given vales by visiting guests as the staggering workload increased exponentially by their presence. None of this is as glamorous as a London ball but the details worked so effortlessly into the narrative show how hard it was for these people and how much the upper classes depended on them.
Still despite all the gory details of life below stairs, I would have been bored if the only reason behind this book was to shine a spotlight on Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth from a different angle. Yeah, I wanted a love story for Sarah and James and I got one. Better still, it’s one that makes sense and fits into the possibilities of the day.
Sarah isn’t one who’s dreamed of finding her someone. She has recollections of her parents, carried off by typhus, being in love and the Hills have a workable marriage built on respect but Sarah is practical and watching the Bennets doesn’t incline her to matrimony. She’s a servant with little time to moon over the farmhands, not that they interest her anyway, and a Tchaikovsky “Romeo and Juliet Overture” HEA just isn’t on her “to do” list.
James is a man with a history and secrets that he fears won’t allow him the opportunity to settle down, grow roots and woo anyone. Plus he knows that what he has is as good as he’s likely to get. A bed, regular meals, clothes and a small salary aren’t enough for him to think he’s got the right to propose to anyone. So when he realizes he loves Sarah, little about his plans actually change. A wife and possible family are expensive.
Yet love blooms anyway. The bud is slow to appear and even slower to open but I honestly felt these were two working class people of the day, discovering feelings they never expected, and daring to hope for a future in a world where they had so little but were willing to risk it for love. I enjoyed the way Sarah is initially prickly around James and how he likes her the more for it. The quiet way in which they help each other with onerous daily tasks and the simple happiness they take in doing so shows me more about how their feelings are advancing than any showy display.
Though most of the story revolves around how the servants maneuver their way through the lives of the upper class, there are major liberties taken with two of the original P&P characters. I didn’t have a problem with the story line as it could easily be seen as “period” but I’m not sure how this will go over with Austeninstas. Yet if they’re reading the book, they’re probably open to seeing some changes done.
I know I’m not alone in wanted more stories about the merchants and lower classes of the day. There are only so many Dukes I want to read about. Still the story must make historical sense to me – I just can’t believe in dairy maids marrying Viscounts – and not just rely on the relative novelty of the plot. This book does that yet it’s the execution of the story that lifts it up to recommended status for me. It never “broke character” or felt incorrect. It amused me and made me happy to see two people who truly fell in love get the ending they so richly deserve. B+
Finally someone mentions just how destructive that family was on their own property! That’s one thing that always kills me about Regencies and most historicals– slice that dress off, muddy that petticoat, tromp mud into the carpets it’s no big deal the servants will just handle it for you. Agh!!!! (You can obviously tell that once upon a time I worked in a fancy hotel as a housekeeper/laundry person yes?)
The price made me cringe (>$10 for an eBook is reserved for beloved autobuy authors), but I may give it a whirl anyway. I certainly passed the link on to a girlfriend who’s constantly hounding me to write her a below stairs romance!
@Patricia Eimer: LOL, just preparing Mr. Collin’s bedroom for his first visit was a work load for Sarah and Polly – whose real name is Mary but she can’t go by that due to the daughter of the house having dibs on the name. It was really an eye opener to read just how onerous a maid’s daily duties were.
@Isobel Carr: There’s a fairly extensive excerpt at Amazon. Over 2 and possibly all of the third chapter to give you a feel for her writing.
Too expensive right now, but I’ll put it on my watch list and hope the price drops once the paperback comes out. I would love to read it and it would be perfect for my bookclub. Maybe next year. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I never read Austen retellings and would probably have missed it if not for this review.
SBSarah reviewed this yesterday:
She had a very different take on it–gave it a D.
I’ll have to read it just to see how it could inspire both reviews!
@JenM: I think it would be great for a book club – there’s lots of room for discussion.
Sarah’s D review (in combination with your rec) has convinced me to try it. Though if it really does make a big deal out of something as mundane as making soap, I’m going to probably hate it.
@Isobel Carr: I can see some of her points but don’t worry – the soap making part is small. And I appreciated that Baker included as much about the drudgery of servants lives as she did or it wouldn’t have felt “real” to me. Glossing over these details would have felt like the “wallpaper history” I complain about so much in books about the upper classes.
Drudgery is kind of open to interpretation though, so I worry when I see a servant’s life portrayed through a modern lens that all too often views physical labor of any kind as “hard”. The life of an indoor servant was plush when compared with what would have likely been their other options (agricultural worker, miner, factory cog, etc.).
I admit I’m curious to read it now.
I’m fascinated that you and Sarah had such different reactions to this book. If/when it becomes more affordable, I’d be interested in giving it a whirl–and see where I fall on the spectrum. :-)
This book sounds excellent to me and I’ve gone over to Amazon buy, but can someone tell me why there are two Kindle versions? One has the cover shown here and one has a red cover. This edition has a date of 10/08/13 and the red cover edition is 08/15/13. Thanks for the information.
@Susan Proctor: The one with the red cover is the UK edition.
Thanks! Definitely sold – am tired of all the sequels myself, but this sounds really good.
This was a DNF for me. The book seemed to revel in rubbing one’s nose in the reality of servants in the Georgian period instead of building a compelling narrative and intriguing characters. It also reminded me too much of the barrage of articles that condescendingly berate Downton Abbey fans for allegedly lapping up the program without wanting the truth about life downstairs.
Tried it last night, sadly, I’m with Evangeline and SmartBitches. The author seems to have no feel for the time period or what it meant to be a servant. Sarah is just boiling with resentment from page one. And I just don’t get why. Maid was a damn good job! Especially if you look at what her alternatives would have been: agricultural work, mine work, factory work. All back breaking in the extreme. Maid was a plush, cushy job by comparison. Her attitude and resentment felt extremely modern to me (clearly written by someone who feels being a servant is somehow demeaning). I discussed the opening scene laundry rant with a friend who’s been dying for a below stairs romance and who also tried it last night. She also happens to be a chef. Her comment was, “Resenting something so basic about your job would be like me resenting chopping onions.” And that about summed it up.
I’m also confused about the addition of “Mr. Hill”. Housekeepers were almost NEVER married. The “Mrs.” used with their name was an honorific. His existence cemented my feeling that the author isn’t familiar enough with the period for me to enjoy the book.
@Isobel Carr: I’m sorry the rec didn’t work for you. There is a definite need for a Mr. Hill in the book but I won’t spoil the reason why by going into more detail. I also think it’s human nature to complain about your job no matter how cushy it might seem. Dealing with pails of dirty diapers and washing clothes until your chilblains split doesn’t sound like fun no matter how much worse another job might be.
@Jayne: I am almost done with this book and really love the writing and the characters thank you so much. Re: Sara, her complaining did strike me as weird but then I started thinking along the lines you did. I am not sure – maybe I was trying to rationalize, but for me it worked. I mean, I will never forget how the lady who did my hair complained to me that another lady in the hair salon badmouthed the salon owner. She was like – I worked under many bosses ten times worse than this one, this person works under his ownership for years, she does not know how good she has it. So yeah, I think it is human nature to complain no matter what. Heck, I have a good job which I know at least some people would be very happy to have – and I definitely complain about things.
I also wonder if the fact that Sarah joined the household as six year old orphan contributed to the fact that she may not fully realize that she has it much better than many other people at that time? Not sure, but in any event it worked for me.
Mr. Hill, heh.
I enjoyed this review very much, Jayne. And weigh in at length about the book — which I A++++++! Loved — at The Hooded Utilitarian blog today.
As for Sarah’s anger being somehow “ahistorical,” Isobel, I disagree. Anger doesn’t have time for wide-angle historical comparisons, especially on the part of someone who’s about twenty years old. Hey, I was often angry at being a COBOL programmer, though I was much older than 20 and knew it was a damn sight better than working at MacDonald’s. I talk more about this in my discussion of the book, which I, unlike Janet and others of you, read as a romance novel (as well as in a heap of other genres).
And anybody who does read my take on Longbourn as well as romance, I’d love to hear from you.