Author: Jo Baker
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright: October 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover, Pages 352, $20.63 [Amazon Hardcover], $9.52 [Amazon Paperback], $11.99 [Kindle], $26.95 [Audible], $21.26 [Barnes & Noble Hardcover], $9.75 [Barnes & Noble Paperback], $11.99 [Nook], $11.99 [Google Play], $11.99 [iBooks]
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This very sentence is perhaps one of the most infamous and well-known in all of English literature. The world over and for centuries, Jane Austen has been celebrated for her delightful novels, the fascinating characters, and the story lines which mesmerize millions. Pride and Prejudice, her breakout novel was published in 1813 to much acclaim. Of her own work, Austen said [to her sister Cassandra], “Upon the whole, however, I am quite vain enough and well-satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte, or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.” In the latter part of the nineteenth century, famous writer Mark Twain bemoaned that his wife and daughters read Austen’s novels unceasingly.
The characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy have been immortalized in plays, films, miniseries, pastiches, and Youtube series. Needless to say, even though that novel was published 203 years ago, it is remarkable beyond words.
Every time I see a Jane Austen pastiche, I tend to approach it with a wary caution. Since this is a pastiche based off Austen’s very own Pride and Prejudice, I held it to a higher standard than I normally would any other book. All I have to say is that I wasn’t disappointed.
Sarah is the devoted servant of the Bennet family who reside in the country residence of Longbourn in the county of Hertfordshire. An orphan, she lives her life cleaning up after the Bennet family alongside Mr. and Mrs. Hill and the plucky young Polly. Despite the fact that Sarah is treated very well by the Bennets and is afforded great kindnesses, she is still only a servant and her life is exceedingly hard. Her days, which commence at the crack of dawn, are replete with backbreaking labor, endless (and often thankless chores), and conflict with Mrs. Hill.
On the same day that the book begins, Sarah is working outside with Polly. They are doing the laundry and Sarah catches sight of a young man who she refers to as “the Scotchman.” For the rest of her day, she seems to obsess over the young man. Who was he? Where was he going? Those sorts of thoughts fill her mind. Unbeknownst to Sarah, the Bennets soon hire “the Scotchman” whose name is actually James Smith as a footman. That is when an interesting dynamic begins between the inquisitive young maid and the fascinating stranger who is full of mystery. At first Sarah doesn’t exactly like him and is downright rude to him in certain instances.
While Sarah isn’t too fond of James, she meets a particularly dashing young man who entirely bewitches her. His name is Ptolemy Bingley and he tells her on the night of the Netherfield Ball that he is actually of mixed African and European descent and that he was born a slave. There is something about the cigarillo-smoking, smartly dressed footman that has Sarah hooked. At that same time, Sarah surprisingly begins to draw closer to James who, in return, cannot help but be transfixed by her. While she has captured the attentions of both men, what exactly will Sarah do?
Overall, I found Longbourn to be an interesting read. Pride and Prejudice is known to be a delightful and a genteel novel, one that is clearly about the life of middle class English ladies in Regency England. It is everything prim and proper with no mention of anything that is undesirable, save for Mr. Wickham’s creepy advances towards Ms. Darcy and Lydia Bennet. Longbourn is a novel of a different caliber. It is a story that distinctly paints the life of the lower strata of society as well as those who worked tirelessly for their living. Nowadays, what was considered “in service” in Regency England can be considered a form of slavery. It is filled with all that is dirty, smelly, and disgusting. There are even some explicitly sexual scenes peppered throughout the book as well as the horrors of war that was nothing short of stomach-churning or heart-wrenching.
What I liked about Ms. Baker’s book is that she writes in so descriptive a fashion that I believed that I was there with Sarah, Polly, and the Hills. The characters created by Ms. Baker mixed well and believably with the Bennets. In fact, I enjoyed the interactions between Elizabeth, Jane, and Sarah. The interaction between Mr. Wickham and Polly had me on the edge of my seat, knowing what he is capable of. On the whole, the story was believable it complimented Pride and Prejudice very well, following the same framework of the original work. This pastiche is one of the best that I’ve found out there.
While I enjoyed the book overall, there were a couple things that fell kind of flat. First of all, I found Sarah to be a bit of a bore. Yes, she is a servant girl and yes, that is likely what her life would have been like, but I felt that something was missing. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it. The bit with one of the characters (not saying who!) going off to war was very graphic and at times very saddening. It was a realistic depiction of what a soldier would have faced during the Napoleonic Wars. However, I wasn’t entire fascinated by that part of the book and it too bored me a little bit.
My parting words are that Ptolemy Bingley was (in part) the best character in the book. I enjoyed the author’s depictions of the Bennet girls but this devil-may-care cigarillo-smoking footman with dreams really got me. Heck, if I was Sarah, I would have fallen head over heels. The ending was sweet and the whole of the book was entirely believable. For that reason, I give this book 4 Tudor Roses. Do I recommend this book? Yes. If you enjoy a Jane Austen pastiche with several twists, look no further!