My Rating: 5 / 5
Format: eBook courtesy of Random House
Publication Date: 1 August 2013
Publisher: Random House Books Australia
Extent: 368 pages
“A brilliantly imagined, irresistible below-stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice: a story of the romance, intrigue, and drama among the servants of the Bennet household, a triumphant tale of defying society's expectations, and an illuminating glimpse of working-class lives in Regency England.
The servants at Longbourn estate - only glancingly mentioned in Jane Austen's classic - take center stage in Jo Baker's lively, cunning new novel. Here are the Bennets as we have never known them: seen through the eyes of those scrubbing the floors, cooking the meals, emptying the chamber pots. Our heroine is Sarah, an orphaned housemaid beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When the militia marches into town, a new footman arrives under mysterious circumstances, and Sarah finds herself the object of the attentions of an ambitious young former slave working at neighboring Netherfield Hall, the carefully choreographed world downstairs at Longbourn threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, up-ended. From the stern but soft-hearted housekeeper to the starry-eyed kitchen maid, these new characters come vividly to life in this already beloved world. Jo Baker shows us what Jane Austen wouldn't in a captivating, wonderfully evocative, moving work of fiction.”
“If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields."
It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah's hands are chapped and bleeding. Domestic life below stairs, ruled tenderly and forcefully by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman smelling of the sea, and bearing secrets.
For in Georgian England, there is a world the young ladies in the drawing room will never know, a world of poverty, love, and brutal war.
Described as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, Jane Austen's classic is reimagined from the servants' point of view."
Summary and Thoughts
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Not because I have anything against the classics, but merely due to the fact that my literary hunger has always been fulfilled by romance, suspense and the heavier psychological reading material I subject myself to.
However, Jo Baker (along with another more recent read), has revealed my inner classic thirst with her debut novel, Longbourn, so much so, that I have actually started reading Pride and Prejudice.
Longbourn is split into Three Volumes and told in the third-person omniscient voice (as are most classics). In the first volume we are introduced to all the servants, Sarah, Mrs Hill, Mr Hill, Polly and James, the mysterious new footman. Through the eyes of these servants, we are given insight into the goings on in the Bennet household from the servants’ perspectives but, more importantly, we are made aware that while social standing in this era prevailed, servants, too, had inner hopes, desires, dreams and longings.
Sarah, our main character and the only servant to be named in Pride & Prejudice was apprenticed to Mrs Hill as a child. Intelligent, kind, witty and rather bookish she can also be feisty. She dreams of seeing more of the world beyond Longbourn and longs for something better than the putrid clothing she is obliged to wear, the cleaning out of the nightly chamber pots and the sore chapped hands she must endure from doing the washing, not to mention sometimes slipping in the “hogsh*t” whilst out feeding the animals. In addition to her daily chores, she serves as a lady’s maid, assisting the young Bennet ladies with their dressing and coiffure.
Mrs Hill is Longbourn’s long-standing and loyal housekeeper charged with the day-to-day running of the household as well as the management of the accounts and overseeing the work of the maids and, while she is married to Mr Hill, the Butler, who takes care of the wine cellar and other valuables, waits on table and is often required to perform footman duties by transporting the Bennets to their various social outings, she has resigned herself to the fact that she is in a loveless marriage, and has a few secret longings of her own.
Unlike Sarah who remembers the life she had with her parents, Polly, the youngest female servant, has never known the love of a family. Sweet and innocent, she is still very young and has much to learn about real life and its rogues and the fact that her current desires of sweets and pennies are not what it’s all about. While she is tasked with duties similar to Sarah, her work is often lacking, resulting in her being put to work in the kitchen and scullery.
And the new footman, James? Well, he’s still searching for the man he was before he was drafted into the army to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, but notwithstanding what he has been through (which is revealed later on in the novel), he is gentle and kind and we can see him striving for betterment as he tries to overcome the “wrongs” he has done whilst fighting in that war and his plight invoked a large amount of sympathy in me.
When James arrives in the household’s midst, Sarah becomes curious about him and can’t help but feel there is more to his arrival than he is prepared to share. Unfortunately when she approaches him with her questions, she is disappointed as he is rather vague, not giving her the answers she seeks, and so she determines that he is lying – “He might have fooled everybody else at Longbourn, but he did not fool her. Not for a minute.”
Coinciding with James’ arrival at Longbourn is the Bingleys’ arrival at Netherfield and that of their “mulatto” footman, who piques Sarah’s interest much to the dislike of Mrs Hill. After a while, she begins to fancy herself “in love”, so when she receives news that the time has come for the Bingley family to leave the area, along with their footman, she begins to contemplate leaving Longbourn to follow him to London. Having made her decision, she puts her plans in motion but, unbeknownst to her, James has been keeping a watchful eye over her and it is he who entices her back to Longbourn and begins to make her realise the true meaning of love, only to disappear a few weeks after, without a trace.
Jumping from present day Longbourn, the second and third volumes provide us with James’ background and the distressing events which took place in his life before his arrival amongst the servants, as well as taking us back to 1788 and the sequence of events which initially led Mrs Hill to the household.
When the current household begins to diminish with its young inhabitants leaving to marry and settle in their own homes, the servants become surplus and Sarah finds herself at Pemberley, the new home of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. While she is not unhappy there, she knows that it is not enough for her and when she and the Bingleys’ footman once again cross paths, we are left wondering whether she will be content to follow him or whether her yearning for James will prove to be too much.
In re-imagining the brilliant classic of Pride and Prejudice and giving us her version of the servants’ lives, Jo Baker has created extremely likeable characters in Sarah, Mrs Hill and James. They can be bold and outspoken and this is conveyed very well throughout the narrative as we become privy to their private thoughts as well as their conversations with one another. Ms Baker’s writing style is evocative, and many a time whilst reading, I found myself pulled into the lives of the servants, proving that she has the ability to see everything through her characters eyes with a sense of realism that has brought these Georgian characters and settings to life. Her prose is lyrical and the narrative flows at a smooth and gentle pace, even though each volume gives a different story. At no time did I feel lost and, while all events in Pride and Prejudice actually coincide with the happenings at Longbourn, I didn’t feel it was necessary to have read Pride and Prejudice beforehand – after all, this is the servants’ story and Ms Baker has skilfully shown the other side of the coin.
In a recent interview Ms Baker had this to say:
“When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice”, it has just been prepared in “Longbourn”; when a footman enters the breakfast room in Austen’s novel, he has just left the kitchen in mine. And when Elizabeth Bennet gets her petticoats muddy, it is Sarah and Polly, the two Longbourn housemaids, who must wash them clean again for her.”
Quite obviously, a lot of research has gone into the writing of this novel and, if you thought that only the wealthy in Georgian England had romance, intrigue, drama and scandal to offer, think again!
Intriguing, riveting and, at times, tender, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about the Georgian era.
I wish to thank Random House Australia for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and providing me with an eGalley of this fine novel.
A Little About the Author
Jo Baker was born in Lancashire and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. The Undertow is her first publication in the United States. She is the author of three previous novels published in the United Kingdom: Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling.
Jo lives in Lancaster with her husband, the playwright Daragh Carville, and their two children.
If you would like to read more about Longbourn and Jo Baker, have a look at my previous blog post here which provides links to the original versions on Random House's website.