Thursday, September 12, 2013

Longbourn by Jo Baker

In this 200th anniversary year of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a new book by Jo Baker called Longbourn is getting a lot of attention. Longbourn is the Bennet family estate, home to Elizabeth, the future Mrs. Darcy.

Longbourn takes place at the same time as the events of Pride & Prejudice, only the focus is on the Bennet family servants. Mrs. Hill is the housekeeper, Mr. Hill the butler, and Sarah and Polly the two maids. The point is made that Polly is really named Mary, but since there is a Bennet daughter named Mary, the maid must be called by another name. The book stresses how different life is for the servants than it is for the family. In Pride & Prejudice, we are made keenly aware that the Bennets do not have a lot of extra money to maintain their estate, but in Longbourn we see how much more work this means for the family servants.
Elizabeth’s youthful high spirits and hardiness are demonstrated by her walk to Netherfield from Longbourn without any regard for her petticoats; in Longbourn we understand the extra work those high spirits cause for the maids who must clean the petticoats. The author does not hold back regarding any of the unpleasant tasks of the day, whether emptying chamber pots or washing the “monthly napkins.”
Longbourn does not read like a Jane Austen novel, although the details about dress and manners are there. It reads like a modern novel written about that time period, rather than a book written at that time. Things happen and are described that would never be present in an Austen novel. I found Longbourn very slow starting; it did not really catch my attention until well into the book. I kept at it because the book is getting so much buzz and because of my affection for Pride & Prejudice.
In addition to the many historical details about what it was like to be a servant during the time of Pride & Prejudice, the plot revolves around Sarah, the housemaid. She is interested in Ptolemy, a footman for the Bingleys, but also shares a high level of awareness with the Bennet family’s mysterious new manservant James.  Towards the end, there is a plot development that I found highly unbelievable, which undermined my investment in the book.
I understand a movie is already in the works, and I think Longbourn could be a terrific movie, condensed and focused on the most interesting parts. It’s not a bad book, but in the end, my favorite parts were the times we got to see glimpses of the beloved characters from Pride & Prejudice. I might have enjoyed rereading P&P a lot more. Still, many Jane Austen fans will enjoy reading Longbourn.
I read an advanced reader copy of Longbourn. It is scheduled to be published in October 2013.

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