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Jo Baker, Longbourn (Review)

March 16, 2014
Jo Baker, Longbourn

Used by permission of The Random House Group Ltd

“Never say never” is one of my favourite mottos, though I must admit there are some things I never will do, such as climb Mt Everest, say, or even write a novel. However, when it comes to reading choices, there are certain types of books that are not my preference, such as crime and Jane Austen sequels, but as regular readers will have seen over the years I can be persuaded. And so, I was persuaded to read Jo Baker’s Longbourn: Pride and prejudice, the servants’ story, a Pride and prejudice spin-off, for my local Jane Austen group’s monthly meeting. I can’t say I loved the book, but it did interest me.

So, what’s it about? As the title suggests, it concerns the “downstairs” staff, the servants, at Longbourn, the residence of the Bennet family of Pride and prejudice. These servants appear, either directly or by indirect mentions, in Austen’s novel, but of course we know nothing about their lives. Baker rectifies that in her story by exploring who they are, how they got there, and what their aims and ambitions are. There’s Mr and Mrs Hill (butler and housekeeper/cook), Sarah and Polly (housemaids) and, for a short time, James the footman. The “heroine”, if a poor orphan housemaid with bleeding, chill-blained, “pruney” hands can be called that, is housemaid Sarah. The plot, particularly concerning James and his relationship to Longbourn, is a little melodramatic and the romantic resolution a little predictable for my tastes but it is probably traditional historical fiction fare. The book is well-written, the characters realistic and engaging, and the plot well-paced. I’m no expert in the genre but it is, I’d say, a perfectly fine example.

Baker nicely handles the relationship with the “parent” novel. The downstairs staff are privy, of course, to what happens to the Bennets, so we see many of the scenes, such as Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth and Lydia’s “elopement” with Wickham, through their eyes. They have their own views on the characters and their own reactions to the events. Baker’s imagination of these is completely believable. Mrs Hill, for example, is sympathetic to Mrs Bennet, understanding that much of her behaviour stems from Mr Bennet’s lack of love and respect for her. She is also very aware of the precariousness of the servants’ situation. What will happen when Mr Bennet dies and the estate falls into Mr Collins’ hands? Will there be enough work for them all as the young misses marry and leave Longbourn?

All this was interesting enough, and the story wasn’t so melodramatic that I was turned off, but what mostly captured my attention was Baker’s evocation of the life of servants in Regency/Georgian times. They work hard, and over long hours, sometimes from 4.30am to 11pm. Baker describes in some detail their duties such as laundering and the hand-ruining scrubbing needed to remove stains, the emptying of chamber pots, and the making of soap and other products such as dubbin. Their needs and feelings are rarely considered. Even “kind” employers’ like the Bennets tend to be oblivious of their servants’ lives, just as the thoughtful Anne Elliot in Persuasion doesn’t notice her sick friend Mrs Smith’s nurse. Their living quarters are cramped, in uncomfortable parts of houses, with housemaids often sharing a bed. Through James, the footman, we learn about the awful lives of young men who “take the King’s shilling” and end up fighting in harsh conditions, treated like fodder and at the mercy of corrupt superiors. James realises:

I had handed my freedom right over. I signed it clean away. I sold myself.

In addition to these rather era-specific aspects of the book were references to behaviours that are more universal to relationships involving disempowered people. One relates to naming. There are two such situations in Longbourn. There’s housemaid Polly whose real name is Mary, but

It’s only ‘cos she’s the Miss and I imnt, that she got to be called Mary, and I had to  be changed to Polly, even though my christened name is Mary too.

This practice, we know, wasn’t limited to English servants. It happened regularly, for example, with indigenous people, as Kim Scott tells us regarding the naming of Bobby in That deadman dance (my review), and Eleanor Catton regarding her Maori character in The luminaries (my review). Then there’s Bingley’s footman, the mulatto Ptolemy Bingley. When Sarah questions his last name, he says:

If you’re off his estate, that’s your name, that’s how it works.

The other issue that struck me was the way servants watch their masters/employers. I’ve already noted that the employers often didn’t notice their servants, but the servants sure noticed them – and more than was simply required for the work they were employed to do. Servants needed to watch because their lives were closely attached to the fortunes of their masters. Similarly, I’ve read that indigenous Australians watch and know non-indigenous Australians way better than we know them. As indigenous activist Lee says in Margaret Merrilees’ The first week (my review):

You think we can’t see you? You think we haven’t been watching you for two hundred years? We’ve had to find out everything there is to know about you.

These sorts of insights are, for me, one of the prime values of reading historical fiction – the lessons learned about how we’ve been and behaved, and the historical continuities between people and times. It’s for these reasons, in particular, that I’m not sorry I devoted some precious reading hours to reading Longbourn.

Jo Baker
Longbourn: Pride and prejudice, the servants’ story
London: Doubleday, 2013
365pp.
Design: Clare Ward
ISBN: 9780857522023

22 Comments leave one →
  1. meg permalink
    March 16, 2014 8:23 pm

    Okay Sue, I have reserved it at my library. I like good historical fiction with some facts.

    Meg

    • March 16, 2014 8:27 pm

      Oh good, Meg. Let me know what you think. You’ve probably read more historical fiction than I have. I’d be interested to know.

  2. March 16, 2014 11:32 pm

    I’m less reluctant than you to read such Austen spinoffs, although I don’t get a chance to do it all that often. I’ve been interested in this one since I first heard about it, it does sound all the more interesting each time I hear more of it. I’m glad you enjoyed it well enough. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it too, whenever I get to reading it.

    • March 16, 2014 11:45 pm

      Thanks Louise. This does have more to recommend it from my point of view because of the servant aspect, which is quite different I think to most others. The historical info is also why I liked that novel you sent me years ago, Jane Austen in Australia. (Not a novel spin-off but a JA spin-off!)

    • April 4, 2014 7:21 pm

      Omg I really would love to watch that movie. I aatlcluy checked out the one for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and there isn’t much info either. Please, make these films!!!I read something somewhere about a new modern PP comin up in 2011. Any idea?Richard Armitage, my god, when I saw the North & South trailer, I instantly thought, Darcy!!!!! The woman playing the lead in that series just doesn’t fit into the role. She does not do well at all, acting beside Armitage.

      • April 4, 2014 11:49 pm

        Is there a new North and a South, Jacy? The Gaskell story? I hadn’t seen that. I liked the old miniseries and loved the book. Those 19th century stories are so rich for movies, aren’t they?

  3. March 17, 2014 8:38 am

    I’ve picked this up and put it down in the book shop more than once. Like you I’m a bit of an Austen purist but I have read that this book is very good and your review seems to concur with that. Just have a problem with another writer appropriating Austen characters. I may read it though:)

    • March 17, 2014 10:56 am

      Thanks Nicola … I’m unlikely to have read it if it weren’t for my group’s discussion of servants. I have only read sequels and spin-offs for this group, and I’m glad to do it as part of our intellectual enquiry into Austen, but I’d not have chosen to read it otherwise. Nonetheless, Baker does a decent job of it if you like historical fiction.

  4. March 17, 2014 10:13 am

    Nope. Lost in Austen is the only Austen-spin-off I will countenance, still. 😛

    • March 17, 2014 10:57 am

      Fair enough, Hannah … though, you know, never say never!

      • Lithe lianas permalink
        March 21, 2014 10:43 am

        Ah, Hannah, but this one is different. The author does not attempt to emulate Austen’s style and she doesn’t really, as Nicola (above) says, appropriate her characters. The servants are very peripheral in her novels and here they simply are fleshed out and in the process we learn something of social conditions in early 19th century. Therein lies the value of the novel, and the same applies to ‘Jane Austen in Australia’ in my opinion.

        • March 21, 2014 11:29 am

          Thanks LL, I think you are right … although she does provide some commentary on the well-known characters, they are not the focus.

  5. March 17, 2014 12:32 pm

    I also found the insight into servant life interesting. I reviewed the book last year and found it a good read, overall.

    • March 17, 2014 2:29 pm

      Oh thanks Monique … I’ll go read your review. Her research seemed good, didn’t it? Sarah’s poor hands!

  6. March 18, 2014 6:14 am

    Glad you enjoyed this one even if it is out of your usual preference. It’s interesting about the servants watching the employers but not the other way around. That’s the way of power relationships isn’t it? Those with the least power have to watch out what those who have the power are doing but those who have power get the luxury of not caring about anyone else. As far as never say never goes, I can go along with the never will climb Everest, but you can’t rule out completely you will never write a novel one day. I mean who knows when inspiration might strike? 🙂

    • March 18, 2014 8:20 am

      Oh yes, I think I can say that about a novel, Stefanie. I’m way too prosaic a writer to ever attempt something imaginative! Anyhow, less competition for other women is good I think! I wouldn’t want to steal their glory 😉

  7. March 18, 2014 10:20 pm

    I avoid any spin-offs, but especially Austen spin-offs. Despite that I initiallythought that it might be an exception, but now I am not so sure.

    • March 18, 2014 10:25 pm

      Several Jane Austen fans who feel as you and I do, Marg, do think this is an exception, but I’m not sure I agree really. Baker has a nice style and would be well worth checking out in future, but if you’re not into spin offs I wouldn’t say you must read this.

  8. Meg permalink
    April 5, 2014 7:53 pm

    I read it and found it to be a satisfying read, though of course, not as good as Pride and Prejudice. I thought Baker was clever to have a diversion with James as a Bennett. I must admit the hint of scandal with Mrs Hill, Mr Hill and James kept my attention. Sarah and Mrs Hill were strong characters in the story and I didn’t concern myself with the Bennett girls. It certainly was a harsh life for the servants at Longbourn.

    • April 5, 2014 11:41 pm

      I love it when you come back Meg after reading a book. I agree re Sarah and Mrs Hill. They are good strong characters. I guess I didn’t like the James – Bennet subplot but I know others do.

  9. August 19, 2017 11:16 am

    You wrote this before I knew you existed, but in case the other commenters are mystified, it came up in a recent (Aug 2017) Six Degrees of Separation. I thought Longbourn was well written, though a little slow, and I liked the way it followed P&P, and the points the author makes about servants’ lives. I disliked the excursion into war on the Peninsula which I thought was unnecessary and the subject for a different book altogether. But the ending was ok (though right at the end Polly starts running towards Sarah who seemingly forgets her and starts running towards Longbourn).

    • August 20, 2017 3:54 pm

      Sounds like your reaction was a bit like mine, Bill – you liked it well enough but weren’t bowled over. The description of the servants’ lives was the best part of it.

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