longbournEven if you haven’t heard about Jo Baker’s recent novel, you may recognize the title as the name of the village where the Bennett family lived in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and that village is indeed where this novel is set. But Baker’s interests lie beyond the Bennett family. Instead, she focuses on the servants at the Bennett home. The Bennetts, Mr. Collins, the Bingleys and so on are incidental players, relevant only insofar as their lives affect those of the servants.

Sarah, the older of the two housemaids, is the main character here, although the book does not focus entirely on her. There’s also Mr and Mrs Hill, who run the house, and the younger housemaid, Polly. A footman, James, joins the household under strange circumstances when the book begins. Sarah takes an almost instantaneous dislike to James, but, this being a book inspired by Pride and Prejudice, those first impressions don’t necessarily hold.

As interested as I was in seeing this different side of Longbourn life, it took me a while to warm to these characters. I found that I was more intrigued by the idea of them than I was in the characters themselves. Sarah’s attitude about James, for example, seemed to come out of the blue. There wasn’t sufficient context for her dislike; it seemed like a manufactured internal conflict, there to provide drama where none was needed. And the introduction of another handsome servant, the mulatto Ptolemy Bingley of Netherfield, didn’t add much. The characters felt like parts of a formula–the discontented servant, the mysterious and attractive stranger, the even more mysterious and attractive stranger, the child, the parent figures. As someone who spent my early teen years reading a steady diet of Sunfire Romances, I felt I knew this story, even if I couldn’t be entirely certain which man Sarah would choose.

There also might have been one too many references to the grittier aspects of Longbourn life. A lot of contemporary historical fiction seems to revel in the fact that authors today can write freely about smells and secretions and sex, and it gets on my nerves. I don’t want my history white-washed, but I don’t want to focus on the chamber pots and menstrual rags and body hair. In Baker’s case it’s not gratuitous. When you clean up after people, you get acquainted with their mess. It’s part of Sarah’s world. Still, the fact that it’s a historical fiction pet peeve means I get distracted when it comes up frequently. For me, less would have been more.

What held my interest early on were the clever ways Baker links her story with Austen’s. The downstairs staff may be nearly invisible in Austen’s novel, but the actions of those upstairs of course affect those who live and work downstairs. The staff in the Bennett home is, for example, concerned about Mr. Collins’s visit because he will one day inherit the house. If they want to keep their place, the staff would do well put their best foot forward when he visits. Mr. Bennett’s springing the visit on the whole household seems especially cruel at this moment. Again and again, we see how happy events or pleasing habits for the family create complications downstairs.

Baker’s renderings of the familiar characters from Pride and Prejudice seem true to Austen’s original, although the servants don’t necessarily see the characters the way we do. Elizabeth, while liked among the servants, becomes a source of annoyance when she takes her outside walks that get her boots and petticoats so muddy. Baker expands a bit on what we know about the characters, especially Mr. Bennett, and, to a lesser degree, Mary. Lovers of the original might be discomfited by the expansion of Mr. Bennett’s character, but what we learn about him doesn’t seem entirely unlikely, even if Austen had no such history in mind. I loved what she did with Mary. (I’ve always felt sorry for poor, awkward Mary, and it seems that Baker does too.)

The connections with Austen kept my attention, even when the main storyline didn’t impress me that much. But in the last half of the book, Baker turns away from Austen altogether to offer a lengthy bit of backstory focused on one of her own characters. It’s at this point that I became absorbed in her story for its own sake. I’m not sure if it’s because the Longbourn setting was a distraction or a crutch or if the story of the world beyond is just better. But that short time outside Austen’s world (but in her time) heightened my interest in the rest of the book. It raised the stakes for Baker’s characters and pushed Austen’s further into the background. From then on, I was in.

I’m still chewing over the ending. I was sufficiently diverted all the way through to the end, but I can’t quite decide what I think about how things turned out. There’s a narrative gap that I think needed filling, and I would have gone a different way with the characters’ decisions, but I’m neither Sarah nor Jo Baker. The path Baker puts Sarah on makes sense, and in that way it’s satisfying, even if it’s not entirely believable.

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11 Responses to Longbourn

  1. alenaslife says:

    Great, interesting review. I feel like a complete dunce that I didn’t get the Austen connection at all. The names seemed so familiar, but it escaped me. Definitely would have added a layer of interest. Still, in agreement that it was better in concept than execution.

    • Teresa says:

      I’d been wondering how this book would go over with someone who didn’t know P&P or wasn’t aware of the connection. I read it *because* of the connection and couldn’t set it aside. Sounds like it was a mixed bag for you, too.

      • alenaslife says:

        Definitely. I chose it for the Downton Abbey appeal, but it was only ok. At least now I better understand why it has received so much press.

  2. Lisa says:

    I haven’t read this one, because I’m a bit wary of Austen spin-offs, though I’m intrigued by the idea of learning more about the “downstairs” life of the period. I agree whole-heartedly with you about the way “a lot of contemporary historical fiction seems to revel in the fact that authors today can write freely about smells and secretions and sex, and it gets on my nerves.” I don’t know if they think it adds authenticity?

    • Teresa says:

      I’m wary of spin-offs, too, but I’d heard good things about this (including from Jenny). In general, the spin-offs I like best are modernizations, like Bridget Jones or the Lizzie Bennett Diaries or Bride and Prejudice. But I really haven’t had much experience with the others, aside from reading excerpts online and deciding they weren’t for me.

      I think you’re right about authors wanting to add authenticity by bringing up the grittier aspects of life. There’s maybe some de-romanticizing of the past going on, too. I don’t mind that, if it’s important to the story, which it is here, even if the level of detail was sometimes over-the-top for my tastes. (Sarah Waters and Michael Cox do better at exploring the unseen side of the past. It’s revealing without wallowing.)

      In my less charitable moments, I also think there’s a sense of superiority behind it–patting ourselves on the back because we’re not so prudish and can be frank about this stuff. And there’s maybe some othering, too. We flush away our urine and hide our natural smells, unlike them. It bothers me when I sense those feelings behind the descriptions.

  3. Gayle says:

    Great review. I enjoyed the realism but had trouble with the liberties she took with the Bennets.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks! I didn’t mind the liberties, only because they didn’t directly contradict what I see in the characters. I can see why people would be annoyed, though, especially with the Mr Bennett storyline. I saw some reviews that complained about the depiction of Elizabeth, but I liked the way Elizabeth was depicted. She seemed like a good person in this book but not always aware of how her actions affected others. I could see that fitting with Austen’s version.

  4. aartichapati says:

    I read this one via audiobook and I didn’t love the narrator. She was a bit boring and monotonous, I think, and then I really just thought all the characters were pretty boring, too. I agree with you about Ptolemy. I am not sure what he added to the story unless it was meant to be a, “Look! England was diverse in the 19th century and my character was not racist!” sort of thing.

    I also didn’t like the whole Willoughby thing with the other maid. I understood including it to show how careful servants had to be, but it just seemed to never get properly resolved and was just a little oddly done.

    • Teresa says:

      I ended up kind of liking Ptolemy, but at first I felt like she was trying too hard to make her story seem modern by including him. She did the same kind of thing with Mr Hill. It was like she was checking off boxes to show how enlightened her version of the story is.

  5. JaneGS says:

    I liked Longbourn quite a bit, though you may a good point about Sarah’s first impression of James being without context. I actually wondered whether Baker was giving a nod to P&P with Elizabeth’s first impression of Darcy being off the mark and too quickly formed.

    Anyway, I agree that the P&P connection was a bit of a crutch and once the characters left Longbourn I think the story worked better.

    I would be interested in seeing what Baker can do outside of the Austen-inspired realm.

    • Teresa says:

      Jane, I’m sure you’re right that she was trying to set up a parallel with Lizzie/Darcy when having Sarah dislike James right off. The difference was that Lizzie heard Darcy make an insulting comment, so she had a reason. I saw a review somewhere that suggested that Ptolemy was also a parallel to Wickham, which I don’t see at all.

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