Longbourn by Jo Baker

longbournReading Longbourn by Jo Baker is a bit of an odd experience. It’s part of the Jane Austen-inspired book industry, specifically subtitled Pride and Prejudice: The Servant’s Story. We see the Bennets, catch glimpses of Bingley and Darcy, and have the events of Pride and Prejudice play out in the background. The biggest presence from the original story, outside of the family, is probably Wickham, and it’s a malevolent presence.

As the book starts out, there are four servants for the Bennet family: Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, and Polly. It’s a life of drudgery, and Mr. Hill is not particularly strong or able. So they take on a young man, James, as footman. The first introduction to James choked me up. It’s in Mrs. Hill’s point of view, and she observes just how close to starvation he is, and wants to fatten him up, even while he thinks he should work before he’s eaten.

He was thin. He was very thin. You could see the ridge of his jawbone and its joint by the ear. And he was dirty: his fingernails were black, his hair filthy, there was a rime of grey about the skin and clothes… He had been on the tramp a while.

It quickly comes clear that James has been through some kind of trauma, though it’s not specified, and his backstory is revealed in hints and implications more than outright stated. (Well, until volume three of the book, when everything about James is spelled out in great detail. It felt a little disjointed and jarring, to be honest, even if there were definite connections to earlier in the book.)

Mrs. Hill has many worries. She’s a mother figure to Sarah and Polly, both orphaned, who were undernourished when she took them on. She fears what will happen to everyone when Mr. Bennet’s health gives out and Longbourn goes to Mr. Collins, and strives to impress Mr. Collins and ply the future Mrs. Collins with treats. Longbourn makes the point that Mrs. Bennet’s concerns for the future security of the family are magnified even more greatly for Mrs. Hill.

What caught me out was the precariousness of the servants’ lives. They have so little, and even that could be taken away at someone’s whim. James, who is grateful for his new placement, understands this well, but Sarah, who yearns for something more, does not.

Sarah falls under the spell of Ptolemy Bingley, born a slave and brought to England, half-brother to Mr. Bingley and now Bingley’s footman. He charms Sarah, but I kept fearing the author would have him treat Sarah badly. I feared for James well-being, but also for Ptolemy’s. I wanted him to have something to make him happy. I was very much invested in the characters Baker had created, enough to worry about the fates she would create for them.

The odd thing about reading this book is that I am of course reminded constantly of Jane Austen’s work. So on the one hand, I can’t imagine there is going to be emotional devastation for the main characters, when it’s part of the Jane Austen industry. On the other hand, the point of writing this is, at least in part, a critique of the class system—what Jane Austen’s characters took for granted, and the difficult challenges of those who were ground underfoot by the pure labor required of them by those with more money and station. Here the underbelly of that world is spelled out, and those who pay such a high price are given priority on the page.

(As well as reversing the characters who take the stage—Darcy and Bingley flit on and off, not the servants—the author has great sympathy for some of the less appealing characters of P&P, namely Mr. Collins, Mary and even Mrs. Bennet. I’ll admit I rather liked that.)

I’m not entirely sure the book works as whole. There are some beautiful passages, especially when it comes to James who is in some ways the emotional heart of the book. But I might have preferred that Longbourn stood separate from Pride and Prejudice. Though it can be argued that the connection gives Longbourn an added dimension, it also caged in what this book could accomplish. For myself, I kept having odd, almost disruptive flashbacks of the BBC miniseries which has visually imprinted itself on my mind. More so than when I’ve reread Pride and Prejudice (although it’s been a while since I’ve done so).

Ultimately Longbourn was an interesting read and this is a qualified recommendation. I may try another book by Jo Baker.

There’s an interesting review here of Longbourn:
The servants’ story would be more successful if the novel didn’t oversimplify tensions between the classes by demanding that readers learn to dislike, or even despise, Elizabeth Bennet.

I didn’t actually dislike Longbourn‘s Elizabeth, but I would agree that she doesn’t quite seem to be the same one as Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth. She fit into the entire theme of the book, i.e. servants were given very little thought by those they served; seeing these characters through Sarah’s and Mrs. Hill’s eyes was deliberately transformative on Baker’s part, even if that transformation didn’t always succeed. There are some good links at the end of this post.

Dear Author reviewed it too, with some discussion of historical attitudes and interesting links elsewhere.

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