“She slid a finger over the mantel, laid a hand on the snowy freshness of the linen… She sniffed: beeswax, the tang of vinegar, soft woodsmoke from the crackling fire. ‘Well done. Good girls. You should be proud of that.’”– Longbourn, Jo Baker, page 131
Jo Baker’s Longbourn is everything that a Pride and Prejudice retelling should be – true to Austen, romantic, sensitive, thoughtful and, importantly, original. Bringing a new spin to our beloved Jane Austen’s creation, Baker has spun a story that is so separate and new from the Darcy/Lizzy love story, but that provides you glimpses of the original from a removed viewpoint. Think about this: Who has to wash Elizabeth’s petticoats after she has trudged through the mud?
The secret behind the success of Longbourn is a quick switch of perspective. Imagine if Pride and Prejudice had been based on the lives of the servants, the “below stairs” group, rather than the gentlemen and the ladies. What would the story have been like? This is the book that does just that, providing us with a deeply moving storyline of maid Sarah, Margaret (Mrs) Hill, Polly, James Smith, Ptolemy Bingley and a number of other deeply layered characters that really bring this book alive.
I found this book at Dymocks for $19.99, and there was also a hardback version that was a little more expensive (ISBN: 9780552779517). The cover gripped me at once – the two unidentified women, the Regency style and the deep colours. At first, I thought it might be a mystery version in the manner of P. D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley. I have read this version on the train over the last couple of weeks – sneaking in snippets where possible, and I’ve found myself increasingly attached to Sarah and James. While, at first, it’s unclear who will play our ‘leading man’, James takes the lead early on. The mysterious, quiet, intelligent footman who carries shelves in his bag and deep scars on his torso – who is he, and what is his secret?
What I liked most about this book wasn’t actually the storyline, although Baker has done a superb job of entwining her plot around Jane Austen’s and making it plausible, but the way it presents a different view of the characters we all think we know so well. Who knew that Elizabeth could be so… thoughtless, I suppose, when it comes to the desires of the servant class? Who, also, would have thought about the fact that all the women – as they live in close quarters – would be likely to be on their period together, and would have had the linen cleaned by Sarah? Most interestingly, the clash between what the Bennets think about the servants and what they actually do here is curious – when the scandal over Lydia and Wickham comes out, it is Mrs Hill and the others that do their best to keep the story quiet.
But, really, the character that is most revealed through the book is actually Mr Collins. Coming across as one of the more genuinely concerned and levelheaded (believe it or not!) he actually redeems himself through his treatment of Sarah. His motivations, his own youth, and the pressures on him are also clear.
For those who long for the “story after” Pride and Prejudice ends, this book does not disappoint either. We are brought in from just before the Bingleys arrive at Netherfield to after the marriages have taken place. While we receive just glimpses of Lizzy and Darcy’s life together, they’re little snippets that you’ll relish. It’s also fascinating to be provided some of the back stories for the characters, such as Mrs Bennet’s childbirths and a miscarriage, or the relationship between Mr Bennet and Mrs Hill.
I love that there’s a quote at the beginning of every chapter from Pride and Prejudice, and I also love that we’re given the proper timeline of events. But Baker dares step where Austen did not tread – into the military. We see the regiments and their behaviour in other countries, and the absolute drudgery of it with absolutely no sugar coating. I love this brutal honesty, the way everything in this novel is stripped back to realism – where Lizzy has underarm hair, and the servants sweat through their clothes, and where maids are picked on by their superiors. The gritty way that this novel portrays the underclass’ lives actually reminds me very much of the way Jane Campion’s The Piano is presented. It’s occasionally awfully brutal, difficult, makes you wince, and yet, after everything, it’s beautiful.
Certainly, there’s a couple of downsides, but I’m barely complaining. The second half of the novel felt a lot more rushed – as though she was told she could only fill 450 pages and so condensed some of the aspects that I thought deserved longer (not wanting to create any spoilers, so will leave out specifically which areas!) and that needed more emotional unpacking. Similarly, some of the flashbacks were slightly confusing to begin with and seemed a little out-of-the-blue as a technique. In saying this, it came together well overall.
Unlike many Austen spinoffs that I have reviewed before, Baker does not rely on the words of Jane Austen to push the novel through. Every line in this book is an original, every character has been fleshed out in an original way that provides something new and fascinating about them, the book could be almost a standalone if you change the characters’ names and it’s written with an ease and relaxed grace that – even when discussing the countryside smelling like “shit” – is both Regency and accessible all at once.
An absolute pleasure. In the Author’s Note we’re told that these characters are, in Baker’s head, people too, despite being “ghostly presences” in Pride and Prejudice. They’re certainly cemented in my mind now, and I have an urge to go back and read our favourite classic to see what glimpses and clues I see of the lives untold.
Apparently it’s set to be turned into a film – I’m dreadfully excited. I feel like this could be a great Downton Abbey crossed with a typical Regency Classic style flick. I’ll be signing up!
What do you think about the servants in Pride and Prejudice? What would you have written?
If you’re keen to read a free snippet, there’s one available on Random House. Fanfiction writers take note, this is how Jane Austen retellings should be done.