Longbourn: A Novel, by Jo Baker – A Review

Longbourn: A Novel, by Jo Baker (2013)From the desk of Syrie James:

What was happening below stairs in Pride and Prejudice? Who were the ghostly figures that kept both the storyline and the Bennet household going behind the scenes? That is the premise of Jo Baker’s engrossing novel Longbourn, which takes Jane Austen’s famous work, turns it upside down, and shakes out a fully realized and utterly convincing tale of life and romance among the servants.

Although Longbourn begins slightly before Pride and Prejudice and continues beyond Austen’s ending, for the most part it matches the action of that novel, focusing almost exclusively on the domestic staff. The protagonist is the young, pretty, feisty, overworked housemaid Sarah, an orphan who turns to books for escape from the menial daily duties which repel and exhaust her.

At first, reading about her duties repelled me as well, and I yearned to go back to the nice, clean world of Pride and Prejudice, where young ladies in pretty gowns dance at balls and engage in clever conversation with handsome gentlemen in frock coats and breeches. Longbourn reminds us that our perception of that world is highly idealized, and that the Bennets, the Bingleys, and the Darcys enjoyed a lifestyle which depended entirely on the hard work of people whose lives were anything but pretty:

Sarah lifted his chamber pot out from underneath the bed, and carried it out, her head turned aside so as to not confront its contents too closely. This, she reflected, as she crossed the rainy yard, and strode out to the necessary house, and slopped the pot’s contents down the hole, this was her duty, and she could find no satisfaction in it, and found it strange that anybody might think a person could. She rinsed the post out at the pump and left it to freshen in the rain. If this was her duty, then she wanted someone else’s. (p. 115)

The book offers an unflinching look at the unpleasant physical realities of life in the early nineteenth century, from chilblains and lice to hauling water on freezing mornings, polishing floors, scrubbing food-encrusted dishes, laundering filthy clothing, washing rags soaked with menstrual blood, and even the sight of Elizabeth Bennet’s underarm hair. Did I want to read about such things? Not really! But Sarah’s spirited nature and her fierce desire for a more fulfilling existence immediately endear her to us, and make us eager to learn more. She yearns to be appreciated by the people she serves, yet remains invisible to anyone other than the exacting housekeeper Mrs. Hill.

Things change when a handsome new footman seemingly appears out of nowhere and is employed by Mr. Bennet. Sarah isn’t sure what to make of James Smith at first, and is both worried and intrigued by his mysterious past. Although her head is momentarily turned by Mr. Bingley’s rakish footman Ptolemy, there is never any doubt about who the real hero is—and what a divine hero he is. James Smith may be dirt poor and hiding secrets, but he is smart, thoughtful, hard-working, and gentle, a committed abolitionist, a great reader, a lover of horses, and a gentleman; and he is always on the lookout to protect our heroine.

The characters from Pride and Prejudice are only shadowy figures in this novel, and not always presented in a favorable light; there is nothing much to like about Elizabeth Bennet as seen through Sarah’s eyes. The gentlemen seem larger than life to her, as in this moment when she opens the door to admit Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam:

A blur of rich colours—one green velvet coat, one blue—and the soft creak of good leather, and a scent off them like pine sap and fine candlewax and wool. She watched their glossy boots scatter her tea leaves across the wooden floor. The two gentlemen were so smooth, and so big, and of such substance; it was as though they belonged to a different order of creation entirely, and moved in a separate element, and were as different as angels. (p. 198)

Baker has a way of using an unexpected word here and there which I quite liked, as in her description of rain that “bounced off the flagstones, bumbled down the gutters, juddered out of the down-spouts.” Some of the gaps and allusions in Pride and Prejudice are filled in: Mr. Bingley’s inherited wealth is based on the sugar, tobacco, and slave trades; we become aware of the vicious realities of slavery; and army officers are not merely flirtatious objects in red coats; here, they are subject to brutal acts and shipped overseas to fight in horrific conditions. While these are all very worthy subjects, I had trouble with the section of the book that covers a character’s experiences in the Napoleonic War. It was overly long and violent, spent too much time away from the main story, and it didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

The narrative in Longbourn shifts between third person perspectives, usually from Sarah’s point of view, but occasionally from others such as Polly, the innocent scullery maid (tempting prey for a particularly fiendish Wickham), Mrs. Hill (who harbors her own secrets and deep disappointments), and our hero James Smith. Unlike Austen, Baker gives us a taste of the passion we crave to read about between our romantic protagonists:

Here was James, now, with his hand wrapped around her arm, and his touch and his closeness and his voice pitched low and urgent, and it all seemed to matter, and it was all doing strange and pleasant things to her. She felt herself softening, and easing, like a cat luxuriating in a fire’s glow. And there was just now, just this one moment, when she teetered on the brink between the world she’d always known and the world beyond, and if she did not act now, then she would never know. 

She caught him, as it were, on the hop. Her lips colliding with his, surprising him; he swayed a little back, against the arm she’d reached around him. Her lips were soft and warm and clumsy, and her small body pressed hard against his. It was too much to resist. He slid his arms around her narrow waist, and pulled her to him, and let himself be kissed. (p. 154)

Tension builds as an unexpected turn of events separates the young lovers, and Sarah is forced to deal with James’s problematical past and the Bennets’s endless demands. There is a great twist to the story, and although I saw it coming early on, it was handled in a touching manner. I found the plot sequence involving Sarah at the end of the book to be rushed and implausible. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that you will get your happy ending; however, the scene was so brief as to be unsatisfying, with only a single line of dialogue. Jane Austen often similarly glosses over her lovers’ climactic moments, and it’s one of the few faults I have with her writing. When you spend an entire book invested in these characters (especially when they’ve been apart for such a long time), you look forward to a romantic climax that plays out and stirs the emotions. I was dying to hear Sarah and James voice their feelings aloud to each other, and disappointed that they didn’t.

These quibbles aside, I found Longbourn to be a fascinating novel with unforgettable characters who I truly cared about. I will never read Pride and Prejudice or any novel about the “upper classes” in the same way again.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Longbourn: A Novel, by Jo Baker
Alfred A. Knopf (2013)
Hardcover (352) pages
ISBN: 978-0385351232

A GRAND GIVEAWAY

Our celebration of Longbourn continues from the October 8th, launch party. Double your chances to win one of six (6) copies of Jo Baker’s new novel by leaving a comments stating what intrigues you about the premise or characters in his novel in both posts. The contest closes at 11:59 pm PT on Wednesday, October 23, 2013. Winners will be drawn at random and announced on Thursday, October 24, 2013. Open to US residents only. Good luck to all.

  • UPDATE: 17 OCT: Because of the outstanding turnout on both posts, Jo’s publisher Alfred A. Knopf has generously increased the number of giveaway copies of Longbourn to 12! By leaving a comment on both blogs you not only double your chances to win, but now there are twice as many copies available! HUZZAH!

Syrie James is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novels The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, Dracula My Love, Forbidden, Nocturne, Songbird, and Propositions. Her next novel, about a time in Jane Austen’s life which has never been written about before, is due out from Berkeley in summer 2014. Follow Syrie on twitter, visit her on facebook, and learn more about her and her books at syriejames.com. 

Cover image courtesy Alfred A. Knopf © 2013; text Syrie James © 2013, Austenprose.com

57 thoughts on “Longbourn: A Novel, by Jo Baker – A Review

  1. Fantastic review! I am more excited than ever to read this behind-the-scenes take on my favorite novel — and keeping my fingers crossed for the drawing! :)

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  2. I am quite fascinated at the idea of a
    downstairs view of the Bennets at
    Longbourn. I can’t wait to read this.
    Thanks for the giveaway,

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  3. I’ve been waiting for a review of this book, having seen the sales blurb on Amazon.

    “At first, reading about her duties repelled me as well, and I yearned to go back to the nice, clean world of Pride and Prejudice, where young ladies in pretty gowns dance at balls and engage in clever conversation with handsome gentlemen in frock coats and breeches.” This was my take on reading the sample first page. So very happy to know that this is a book to buy!

    Thanks, Syrie!

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    • I admit I struggled for the first part of the book, because so much emphasis was placed on Sarah’s menial duties… but once James Smith was introduced, I was hooked!

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  4. I’m fascinated to see what Baker makes of the servants’ take on the crazy Bennet family! Do they respect Mr. Bennet? Do they think that Lydia is as crazy as everyone else does – or perhaps they know something redeeming that we don’t? Does Jane Bennet really seem so saintly from the perspective of the staff? I can’t wait to read this!

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  5. This review was great! It whetted my appetite for such an intriguing vantage point in this favorite story. I look forward to reading Longbourne. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.

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  6. This is truly an interesting take on our beloved P&P. Since one if familiar with the story, it will be so interesting to see the parallel story below stairs. Thank you for the giveaway!

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  7. The skuttlebutt on the street is “Longbourn” is an “upstairs downstairs” or Downton Abbey type scenario. But really it’s not; it was much more focused on the Longbourn help and those they encountered. The Bennet’s are on the periphery– and the descriptions & interactions with them are not always in a favourable light- which your excellent examples, Syrie, clearly depict the color & freshness of this POV. The backstory of one character on the continent was overly long, and although necessary– I think it really could have been condensed to a few descriptive paragraphs. When this info is introduced, honestly I was mostly interested in what was happening back at Longbourn.
    In a field of many, MANY Austen adaptations, I found this book (for the most part) fascinating, inventive, & enjoyable. I particularly like how she has the protagonist mention Lizzy Bennet’s muddy hems and she might be more conscious on her tramps outdoors if she were the one to wash them! I look fwd to the film adaptation.
    I read my advance copy via Amazon vine program.

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    • I totally agree with you, Christina, about that subplot that took us to the continent– I wish it had been presented in a few paragraphs or a couple of pages at most, because I would rather have been back at Longbourn! I did really love the book overall, and find myself still thinking about it and the characters.

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  8. I love the idea of the “behind the curtain” look at the lives of the characters. I’m not sure I would have liked to have a servant combing my hair, dressing me, etc. Especially while I am having a conversation about details of my life with someone else. Servants seemed to have a great deal of information about the family that could be used against them. Wonder what they did with it?

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  9. I also like to know about the servants and their lives. That is what I like about Downton Abbey so much. There are other shows too that are great in showing the lives of domestics such as Upstairs Downstairs 39 steps etc. It would be interesting to know about their lives and their profession.

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  10. Lovely review, Syrie! I love that we are seeing P&P from a “downstairs” point of view. There has been so much buzz about this book and it’s all been good!!

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  11. Great review Syrie. I have read Longbourn and agree with all of your assessments. I really struggled through the opening chapters too. Baker really brought us abruptly into servant territory by describing the physically challenging aspects of the job. It was the complete opposite of the fairy tale setting of Austen’s pristine Regency world. Did I really want to read about Lizzy’s arm hair or the chamber pot contents? But when James arrives on the scene I was hooked. Baker did a great job of paralleling the events in P&P and creating new characters. It’s biggest fault was the foray to the Continent. It seemed out of place and disrespectful to Austen.

    I too will never think of P&P or any Regency-era novel in the same light again. There was another side to the refined and elegant life now beyond silk frocks and billowing greatcoats. I really enjoyed the novel and recommend it highly. Thanks again for your thoughtful review. Cheers, LA

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  12. Thank you for your interesting and helpful review, Syrie. I started listening to Longbourn on Audible audio yesterday. I’ve already wanted to dash back to P&P where things appear cleaner, day to day realities are largely ignored, and dinner’s appear on the table as if by magic. But the characters seem interesting, and I sense a mystery. I’ll keep going after knowing you think it is worthwhile.

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  13. I haven’t yet read “Longbourn” but it’s on my list and I can hardly wait to dive in, especially since reading Syrie’s great review.

    I am a huge fan of “the big picture” – especially when it comes to historical presentations. Context is important and I’m so glad to see an author willing to burst our romantic bubble. People in service lead a harsh, unrelenting life of exhaustion and lack of sleep. The great houses, and even the not-so-great ones, were built on and kept running by the service staff.

    Whenever I see a grand production of a historical novel, no matter the era, I wish I could see the unseen; the staff that made that life possible. Such a Darwinian existence – only the toughest survived. I’m a cream puff and never would have made it.

    Thank you, Jo Baker, for reminding us we all stand on the backs of others.

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    • From one “cream puff” to another! Life was much more difficult for even the gentry than a straight forward reading of any of Jane Austen’s work describes. I’m glad I live here and now. Life has always been more difficult for some.

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  14. How true. Your point is well made.

    In my Regency Fantasy manners, dress, carriages and effective medical care exist. High infant mortality, tuberculosis, lice, and bathing once a week (or less) do not. Sort of a “Regency, v2.” Or a theme park. :-)

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  15. I’ve been wanting to read this P & P meets Gosford Park since I heard about it. Although after reading Syrie’s review, I’m not sure I’m ready for it!

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  16. This must go on my to read list. I thought so with the launch party on the 8th but with Syrie James’ review I am going to move this to the top.

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  17. Pingback: Longbourn: A Novel, Virtual Book Launch Party with Author Jo Baker & Giveaway! | Austenprose - A Jane Austen Blog

  18. What intrigued me the most about this review was this sentance: “there is nothing much to like about Elizabeth Bennet as seen through Sarah’s eyes.”

    I’m sure I’m not alone when I say how much I love Elizabeth and I’m not sure how I’ll feel about a main character who doesn’t admire her or a book that paints her in an unfavorable light.

    But at the same time, the rest of the book sounds fascinating and I’d be a fool not to want visit Longbourn with any character who wants to take me there.

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    • I agree with you, Heather– I adore Elizabeth and it was rather off-putting to see her presented through a servant’s eyes, in a way that wasn’t exactly flattering, to say the least. But then, I think it was realistic. Elizabeth is in a world of her own which is very different from Sarah’s– as is Darcy–and I think the way the author presented them rang true, even if it wasn’t entirely flattering. Which made it interesting, since the book is about Sarah, and we care about her.

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  19. I’m in general cautious about Austen re-tellings (though isn’t every chick flick kinda owe something to Austen?!) but this one sounds too good to resist. I’m intrigued to find out what the servants thought of Mr. Darcy – and if they saw love blooming any sooner than Lizzie did!

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    • Sharon, the book is very well done, but there is very little about Mr. Darcy. It takes place at Longbourn, and he rarely went there, if you recall. So the servants have very few (if any) thoughts on the subject you mention. There are plenty of other new plots unfolding, however, which will hold your interest!

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  20. Shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs may you really crave an understanding of the life of the staff in a manor house at the time of Pride and Prejudice. This book sounds brilliant.

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  21. So looking forward to reading this – stories about how the “other half” – non-gentry seem very popular right now, and it’s no wonder why. I’ve been loving Paradise on PBS, and of course am a big Downton Abbey fan. I’ve always wondered what the servants’ lives were like in Jane Austen’s books – since there are so many fabulously crazy characters, it would be so interesting to know what the servants think about them.

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  22. This sounds like one of my favorite shows (Downton Abbey) mixed with one of my favorite novels (Pride & Prejudice). I am officially intrigued. It’s also a different view point that all of the other Austen-inspired novels I have read. Great review!

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  23. I’ve just finished this book. I think your review was spot on, though I didn’t mind the war scenes and the aftermath; I wanted to know about James and I found that his character was explored therein, as was his history. As anvid JAFF reader, and fan of Austen, of course, i have a particular problem reconciling this view of Elizabeth, in fact, all the Bennets, with the material and persona i have come to adore. it will color my perception for along time to come, I fear. I do agree, wholeheartedly with your assessment of the ending. Yes, I was invested in Sarah and the steps she took to find James, so I agree that the ending was abrupt and lacking the necessary conversations and explanations to feel the fulfillment I desired.
    I understand that this story has been “optioned” for some filmed project, and I can only hope that, much like the BBC version of Gaskell’s “North and South”, we find our satisfaction in a slightly revised, extended version. One can hope?

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  29. I felt the same way when I read the book, especially when Sarah first saw James. She started it nicely, but no climactic scene (not even a little hot steamy kiss). I think the book was well written and if you like Austen you will appreciate it, but if you haven’t read Austen, you probably wouldn’t care too much about the characters. Although I loved reading the historical aspect. Great review!

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