All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Longbourn – Jo Baker

on August 20, 2013

Jo Baker
Random House AU
2013, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

The world is familiar with the Bennet family from Jane Austen’s famous novel, Pride & Prejudice. That novel has also been retold countless times, expanded upon a hundred times more but this adaptation is a little different. It is the story of the Bennet’s servants,

Sarah is the maid, it is her duty to wash the linens, to scrub the Bennet girls’ petticoats and underthings, to help the housekeeper Mrs Hill with all her other duties. Also working alongside Sarah is a younger girl named Polly and also the ancient butler Mr Hill. The Bennet’s are not as well off as some of their counterparts and the servant’s work is never done. All are pleased when Mr Bennet hires a new man, James, to serve as coachman, footman and help take away the strain from Mr Hill. Although Sarah gets off on the wrong foot with James, she soon finds that his work ethic is second to none. He rises early each morning and takes on some of the duties that had previously been Sarah’s, such as drawing water. This gives Sarah’s chilblain-damaged hands some much needed respite, but the work is still never ending.

A brief respite from Sarah’s work is Ptolemy Bingley, a footman from the nearby estate of Netherfield. He’s handsome and dark, a worker from the Bingley sugar plantation. Sarah is dazzled by him, despite the disapproval of Mrs Hill, who seeks to keep the two apart. And Sarah is unaware that she’s being watched by James, the quiet Longbourn footman, who is smitten with her.

Longbourn takes the reader below the stairs and paints the entire portrait of the household made so recognisable in one of the world’s most famous and much loved novels. The Bennet’s, while landowners, are not as wealthy as others – their skeletal staff in this novel is Mrs Hill the housekeeper and her husband who, before the arrival of James acted as footman, coachman and tended the livestock as well as two maids, Sarah and Polly. Sarah is the main character and her days are described in great detail. She rises when it’s still dark to draw the water and light the fires and begin her chores. On the day where they wash the household linens, the work never stops – scrubbing sheets and towels and petticoats and tablecloths. Her day keeps her busy often until late at night before she falls into her shared bed with Polly for a few hours snatched sleep. She owns two threadbare dresses and suffers from chillblains that make her hands chapped and bleeding, raw and sore. This is definitely life on the ‘other side’, away from any sort of privilege. The Bennet’s might not have been fabulously wealthy but they were still among the haves and Mrs Hill, Sarah and Polly are definitely the have nots and the line is very definite.

This book has generated lots of very positive reviews and much praise but I think for me, I’d have preferred it if it wasn’t connected to one of my very favourite novels. I love Pride & Prejudice, it’s my favourite classic, Lizzie is one of my favourite literary characters and of course her and Darcy are one of my favourite couples. And it made me kind of uncomfortable to read about Sarah scrubbing away the stains of her monthly bleeds, or emptying her chamber pot. Some things are better left unsaid and I know she’s human, just like the rest of us but you never really think of characters in that fashion. No one thinks of the beautiful Jane Bennet having to use a chamber pot! Jo Baker also takes some liberties with the original story, padding out the background of Mr and Mrs Bennet a little bit to further enhance the story of James the new footman. It’s probably not unlikely, or uncommon, that such things like that happened but once again, messing with established books is not something I generally like to see.

What I actually did like, was Mrs Hill’s administrations to Mr Collins and the way in which she thinks about him. With no Bennet sons, the property will go to him and Mrs Hill knows when he comes to visit, that she must impress him, make him feel as though the staff at Longbourn are indispensable for when he inherits, that way he will keep them on and their jobs will all be safe. It was interesting reading about her displeasure with Mr Bennet for failing to give her adequate notice of the guest’s arrival (something she believes to be deliberate, connected to the background I referenced above) and how she throws herself into making everything perfect for him. When Collins becomes engaged to Charlotte Lucas, she also sends around some of Charlotte’s favourite treats, extending her desire to be seen as anticipating her future mistresses likes and needs and being thoughtful, the sort of housekeeper/cook every household would love to have. I also really liked the relationship between Mrs Hill and Sarah. Mrs Hill has had Sarah since she was a small girl, training her to probably eventually become housekeeper herself. The two have affection for each other which Mrs Hill often hides beneath a blustery, business-like exterior. This is also partially because of the loss Mrs Hill suffered early in life, something that still haunts her. I think the way in which the servants relate to each other is a great strength in this book. When James starts work at Lonbourn, he immediately sees things that need to be done and does them, even if they’re not his duty. His feelings for Sarah are sweet and I enjoyed waiting for her to see that James was a much better option for her.

I think I would’ve connected with this book a lot more if it wasn’t based upon P&P and was just a story about servants for any household from this particular timeframe. I liked Sarah and I liked James although his background was for me, a weakness in the story because it was connected to Pride & Prejudice. The Bennet’s don’t appear very frequently in this story but they are a presence and I think for me, that’s just something that doesn’t work. The core story is good, but the tethering of it to something famous drags it down.


Book #215 of 2013

10 responses to “Longbourn – Jo Baker

  1. Lily Malone says:

    I have never read Pride and Prejudice. I wonder what I’d think if I read this without knowing any of that backstory, beyond Mr Darcy must end up in a pond at some stage in a white shirt. Thanks for a thoughtful review.

  2. I’m about to start this one – I’m curious but before even beginning, have wondered how much you really want to know about the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. I haven’t read P&P for many years so hoping I find this one a bit of fun.

  3. Belle says:

    I love the concept of this but I don’t know that I want to read about Lizzy or Jane’s chamber pots either!

    • Yeah, it was a bit jarring. I mean that stuff is usually left out for a reason, isn’t it? I probably would’ve found Sarah’s duties more interesting if they were devoted to someone I didn’t know.

  4. I’m not the biggest fan of Pride and Prejudice re-imaginings (In fact, if I’m being honest, I normally go out of my way to avoid them whenever possible) but I must admit that the concept for this novel is interested. While it sounds as though it failed in its execution, I’ve always loved novels or television shows that allow a glimpse of the running of a household from every angle, which might explain my fascination with television series like Downton Abbey before the show began to suffer in quality. It’s interesting to see how the lives of a household’s inhabitants can vary so wildly depending on social situation and employment.

    As you mentioned, though, some things are best left to the imagination, and given how important Pride and Prejudice has always been to me and how much I adore it, I wouldn’t want my feelings about the original novel tainted by some of the rather crude inclusions in this novel. Yes, it’s all natural, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it! 😉 I think it’s safe to say that this is one novel I have no intention of reading.

  5. sally906 says:

    I have this in the mail and on the way. I am really looking forwards to reading it.

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