Longbourn by Jo Baker
Publisher: Black Swan
• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •
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.
There have been many adaptations and retellings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice over the years, and Longbourn is one I’ve been eager to read for a long time. I was delighted when I finally got my hands on a copy a few months ago. Longbourn is the second retelling of Pride and Prejudice I’ve read – the first was Austentatious by Alyssa Goodnight – and I really enjoyed it. The book gives a fascinating insight into the life of servants in Austen’s time and all the unpleasant chores they had to complete.
What I like about Longbourn is how Jo Baker has ensured that the plot stays close to that of Pride and Prejudice. The language is very similar and the characters are exactly the same as they are in Austen’s novel. Baker also manages to include all the main characters from Pride and Prejudice – we hear about the five Bennet sisters, their parents, Darcy, Bingley, and the horrible Mr Collins. There are also some additional characters that appear in Longbourn – the protagonist Sarah, the housekeeper Mrs Hill, a young maid called Polly, and the footman James Smith.
Baker really brings her characters to life in Longbourn. They are well-developed. Sarah won my sympathy straightaway, and I admired her determination. She is an intelligent and spirited character and wants more out of her life than just serving other people. Sarah has to do a lot around the house and is frequently overlooked by the Bennets, although Elizabeth does let her accompany her to the Collins’. I also liked James. He is mysterious and intriguing – I could understand why Sarah was so interested in him. Unfortunately, I wasn’t keen on Ptolemy, Sarah’s other love interest. I thought he was an irrelevant character.
Another thing I like about Longbourn is the fact that the narrative doesn’t just focus on Sarah. The third person perspective enables us to find out how the other maids and James spend their days. This adds to the story and makes it more varied.
Longbourn is a unique book that explores a previously untouched aspect of Pride and Prejudice. Unlike Austen, Baker focuses more on the hardships of the time, including the Napoleonic wars. There was a lot of struggles endured by both the servants and families who lived during the Regency period. Longbourn could stand on its own, but I’d recommend reading Pride and Prejudice first to familiarise yourself with the setting and characters. It’ll appeal to fans of Jane Austen, Downton Abbey and historical fiction.
Have you read Longbourn? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?