“Longbourn” by Jo Baker – highly recommended.

Overall Impressions

“Longbourn” was the first book I read for my “Pride Prejudice and Pastiches” reading challenge. I found it to be an extremely powerful and emotionally moving book.

It tells the story of a young woman who makes the hard choices to win a life for herself and to share that life with the man she loves. No, her name is not Elizabeth Bennet. Her name is Sarah and she’s a maid at Longbourn. The story is mainly focused on Sarah, Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and James, the footman. The relationships between the three are deep and complex and entirely believable.

At first, I thought that focusing on Longbourn’s domestic staff was a curious premise, like viewing Hogwarts through the eyes of the House Elves but I soon saw that it was much more than that.

Although it shares the same timeline as “Pride And Prejudice” and features all the main characters, with some, like Mr Wickham, being pivotal to the plot, “Longbourn” stands proudly on its own. It is not a pastiche, it’s a work in the same universe. If you had never read “Pride And Prejudice”, “Longbourn” would still be a powerful read. If you have read “Pride and Prejudice” then your appreciation of both books is deepened.

Like “Pride And Prejudice”, “Longbourn” accepts the economic reality of avoiding destitution and the political reality of the inferior status of women and tries to understand what a woman might do, in these circumstances, to ensure her happiness and to commit her life to the man she loves.

The difference in social class adds additional challenges for Sarah and James (who definitely does not have £20,000 a year) which, to be understood, need to be set in the context of what was happening to working people in England during the Napoleonic wars: the lack of work, the surfeit of beggars, the fate of enlisted men, the destruction of the livelihoods of the weavers and so on. The “little bit of ivory” that Jo Baker works on abutts the one that Jane Austen used but is not the same.

The things that stuck with me most from this book:

  • Sarah’s courage and dignity as she navigates her limited choices and her strong passions. Her refusal to settle for the safe when the is the possibility to live a full and meaningful life.
  • The brutality and futility of James’ life as a soldier at war in Spain and Portugal, the scars it left and the strong, quiet man it created.
  • The recognition of Wickham as a molester of young girls. Although I knew from “Pride and Prejudice” that Wickham has taken Lydia away when she was fifteen what that meant and the kind of man it made him hadn’t sunk in. Watching him groom a very young maid with sweets and pennies made things much clearer.
  • Sarah’s sense of fading into invisibility when Darcy and others strode past her, paying her no more attention than a piece of furniture. It brought home the impact on identity of being a servant.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of the period, in “Pride and Prejudice” or in a powerful story about a struggle for dignity and happiness.

I recommend the audiobook version, which benefits from an exceptional performance from Emma Fielding. She has the perfect voice for this: it summons up the period and makes the text live.

Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

My thoughts as I read each Part of the novel

I made notes on my impressions as I read through the book. I’ve put them here to share my experience of reading a novel as powerful as this one.

Volume One: I’m not sure what to make of this

I’ve only just begun it and I’m not sure yet if it will work and whether the concept is strong enough to thrive over thirteen hours of narration.

So far, it’s strength lies in sharing all the details of life at Longbourn that, even if Jane Austen had been interested in the servants, she might have passed over because they are details that anyone living at the time would have taken for granted. It’s a little like reading a Docudrama version of the first part of “A Social History of the English Working Classes, 1815 – 1945”. 

It reminds me of facets of my childhood that already seem so archaic that I wonder if I dreamed them: waking to a cold house and watching my mother clean out the grate and set a fire while we were both still half wrapped in sleep, seeing people with chilblains on their fingers, the use of chamber pots in my grandparents’ house.

It also tells me of things I’ve imagined but never experienced: the isolation of a house in the country, the absence of man-made sounds, the bright darkness of night sky free of light pollution.

I think what will make or break the book is Sarah, the housemaid. She’s been raised at Longbourn, She reads books from Mr Bennet’s library. She works. And all her days are the same. She hungers for change but, when it arrives at Longbourn, in the person of a new, half-starved male servant with an unknown past, she finds herself resenting it. So far, I like Sarah. I can see myself becoming invested in her and the book.

Volume Two: this is much more powerful than I had expected.

I’ve just reached the grief-bringing, rage-inducing end of volume two of “Longbourn”

This book is so much more powerful than I had expected it to be. At first I was fascinated at how well it immersed me in the daily life of a house in the English countryside in the early nineteenth century.

Then, I was interested in the different lights cast on the characters from “Pride And Prejudice” and how the below-stairs story not only followed its timeline but echoed its issues and choices.

But soon, I became deeply engaged in the relationship between Sarah, the housemaid and James, the newly engaged groom/footman with scars on his back.

The storytelling is strong and subtle, packed not with action but a deep understanding of the flow of everyday life and the ways in which we swim through it.

Wickham remains, for Sarah and James as much as for the Bennets and the Darcys, a source of pain and shame and unrepentant malevolence. He comes alive in this portrayal. He’s not a monster. He’s just someone who hates himself and everyone around him and vents that hate in small acts or malice hidden beneath a veneer of charm that is an expression of his contempt.

As I finish Part Two, with damage done and pain still to come, I’m surprised to find that, while I feel for Sarah and James, some of my rage comes simply from how the society they live in works. At one point Wickham says to James. “You can’t do that to me. There are rules”. And there were. Brutal rules that allowed flogging, birching and hanging. Rules that kept discipline in the Army that, in turn, kept the working people in their place. I knew this already but Jo Baker made me feel it. 

So, given that this is fiction and that the action takes place two hundred years ago, why the rage? I think it’s because I see us heading back there. I see the people who ruled my country for their own benefit for generations until we took power from them after World War Two, waking up to the idea that they could do it again. That they could live wealthy lives and use force to protect their privilege and we would just accept that there need to be rules and that honest people have nothing to fear from them.

This isn’t where I expected a revisiting of Jane Austen to take my imagination and emotions but I suspect it was always part of Jo Baker’s intent.

Part Three: this is unexpected

I’m two chapters in to part three. It’s unexpected and deeply pleasing. We leave the “Pride and Prejudice” timeline and go back in to the past lives of the servants: Mrs Hill’s early service at Longbourne and James service in the war in Spain and Portugal. 

The writing is vivid and intimate and full of things Jane Austen would have known little or nothing of.

This book is standing on its own feet now and doing it well.

Some notes on Jo Baker

I went to Jo Baker’s site to understand what kind of person writes a book like this, with their imagination filtered through the lenses of classic literature and English social history. I loved her story of how she came to write. She studied English at Oxford which:

“knocked the creativity out of me entirely. Literature started to seem like a graveyard full of monuments to dead great men.  After Oxford, writing no longer seemed like something I could do. Not being great, or dead. Or a man.”

She started to write while studying in Belfast where

“the ceasefire had just come into being, and with that came a massive release of pressure: the city was buzzing with life and energy. And it also seemed to be teeming with writers. You saw novelists in the street, poets at the cinema. You bumped into playwrights in the pub.

Getting to meet writers, getting to know writers, I saw – duh – that writing was something done by real live men and women. And I was a real live woman, so it was at least possible that it could be done by me.”

4 thoughts on ““Longbourn” by Jo Baker – highly recommended.

  1. It’s interesting what we all like and dislikes about this one. When I first read it, the skuttlebutt on the street was that it was an “upstairs downstairs” or Downton Abbey-type scenario. But I disagree — it was more focused on the Longbourn help and those they encountered. The descriptions & interactions with the Bennets were not always in a favourable light—which added to the richness & 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, but plodded. I am still curious if and when they plan to make it into a film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Christina,

      This definitely wasn’t an “Upstairs Downstairs” thing. I think the conceit that that worked on was that the people upstairs defined the people downstairs, that their lives were more important and that the people downstairs lived through service to them. This book rejects all of that. The servants have their own lives. They’re dependent on their employers and very much in their power. The people upstairs mostly cause problems for or mess up the lives of the people downstairs (Mr Bennet and his affair with Hill and Wickham and his predation on Polly and threat to James). Perhaps worse than that, some of the people upstairs don’t see the servants as real or even don’t see them at all. There are two instances when Sarah feels herself to be invisible.

      I agree that James’ war in Spain and Portugal felt like a novel in it’s own right and perhaps was a little long but it did explain how he came to be who he is and it put the strutting Militia officers in context as people playing at being soldiers.

      As for the plodding, I didn’t experience that. Perhaps that was is part due to the quality of the narration of the audiobook. It felt calm and unhurried but it didn’t drag. I also thought the pace matched the lives of the servants. Time passed slowly with littel change and little prospect of change.

      In the end though, I wasn’t sure this really was an Austen adaptation. I think it was historical fiction grafted on to Pride and Prejudice like grafting one apple tree onto another. Pride and Prejudice is the rootstock that provides a good environment in which the graft can flourish but the graft is the prize.

      Like

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