Monday, December 9, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Longbourn by Jo Baker

I read Jane Austen many years ago and was/am an ardent fan. Still, for some reason, I haven’t felt any desire to choose among the myriad Austen-related historical novels that have been coming out in the last few years. I’m not so enamored of the characters that I need to see their stories carried on. Or re-evaluated. Maybe it’s because I read Austen’s work so long ago. Or maybe it’s because I want to remember the characters as they were, not interpreted by another author.

But then I saw the blurb for Longbourn by Jo Baker. This is Pride and Prejudice as seen from the point of view of the Bennets’ servants. My first thought was: The Bennets had servants? Apparently, they did. They just didn’t receive any notice. They were beneath notice. So what do the servants think of the goings-on at Longbourn?

With the popularity of Downton Abbey, the soap opera mixture of upstairs and downstairs has proven to be compelling entertainment. Add to this the allure of Pride and Prejudice and the book was impossible to resist. But I had mixed feelings about it.

It’s a slow starter. In Longbourn, the servants seem to take as little interest in the goings-on upstairs as the Bennets take in them. Unless it is going to directly affect their lives, the characters in Longbourn don’t bother with Austen’s characters. They are too busy working. The plot of the book has to be fitted chronologically, more or less, to the plot of Pride and Prejudice because the relationship to the classic is the selling point of the novel. So the familiar major events are remarked upon. Jane goes to Netherfield and catches a cold. Mr. Collins comes for a visit and ends up proposing to Elizabeth. The Bingleys leave Netherfield abruptly. Etc. But this info, interesting as it may be to the reader, means very little to Sarah, the housemaid-protagonist of this novel, who is very much wrapped up in her own problems. Sarah’s concerns and, to some extent, those of the other servants, are the stuff of this book, not the love lives of the Bennet girls. And, frankly, it took a while before I was able to find Sarah’s problems all that compelling. It was an interesting concept, but not all that interesting a read.

Sarah is an orphan who was raised up by the housekeeper/cook at Longbourn, Mrs. Hill. Sarah is a young woman now, and has come to resent the grueling drudgery of her life and the hopelessness of her situation. Although grateful to Mrs. Hill for rescuing her from the orphanage, Sarah works hard from dawn until past nightfall and sees no hope for a better future. The difference between her life and that of the ladies she serves could not be more starkly presented.

One day, a new man, James, arrives on the scene who is hired on as footman. Although Sarah briefly entertains a fantasy of a romance, the footman ignores her. In turn, she scorns him, convincing herself that he is hiding some terrible secret. She turns her attention instead to the footman of the newly arrived Bingleys. The handsome messenger is flirtatious and charming and he brightens her days.

There is in-depth description of the workaday life of maidservants of the time period. While I admired the realism, unfortunately, reading about so much drudgery was a bit monotonous. I got tired of Sarah’s chilblains.

Eventually, the storyline does take off as Sarah tries to take more control of her life. It turns out James is hiding a secret. It isn’t just Sarah’s imagination. Sarah and James are good people who inevitably become drawn to one another but obstacles are put in their path.

The roundabout love story works. It is not a "Romance" with dances and ball gowns and high society manners and intrigues. It’s gritty and difficult with no magic solutions. No one races around to rescue the broken dreams of the poor. Not even Mr. Darcy. In the end, the most striking feature of the book is how disinterested Sarah is in the Bennet girls’ stories and how disinterested they are in her. It’s an unflinching look at the lives of domestic servants in late 1700's England and an interesting love story in its own right. But it doesn’t borrow much from Pride and Prejudice except the names of characters and a loose structure based on a plot outline for action that is happening pretty much off stage.

This is the 36th book I've read for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.


  1. Your review here is so thoughtful--much better than my own incoherent jumbles of praise. I really, really admired this book,despite feeling a little leery of the hype.

  2. I felt much the same way about this one. I loved the descriptions of time and place, but the story itself felt flat to me, especially in early one. Great premise, but there just wasn't enough to the story for the book to be anything more than an okay read for me.