Author: Jo Baker
Publisher: Knopf, 2013
Format: Audiobook, Narrated by Emma Fielding
Longbourn is the title of this book. If you are a Pride and Prejudice fan, you’ll recognize Longbourn as the setting for Jane Austin’s famous novel. The author, Jo Baker, took the setting and turned it into a completely different story. Many have said this is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, but I didn’t see it that way. The original characters seldom appear. Longbourn by Jo Baker is a story about the servant for whom life was not as rosy and comfortable.
Although for me the book was rather sad, I loved this opposing look at life at Longbourn. I am a Jane Austen fan and every year I reread at least one of her stories for the basic romance of a simpler time. The novel Longbourn made me see those simpler times differently. It was as if the lights had been turned on full force. Although not mentioned in Austin’s novels, the pounding and cleaning of dirty clothes had to be done by hand, as did the cleaning out of chamber pots and outhouses. Food had to be grown and preserved and cooked and served, and clothing had to be made and mended. Who did all that?
I never thought about the background of the Bennet household while reading Pride and Prejudice. Reading Jo Baker’s Longbourn gave me insight into what backbreaking and disgusting work the Bennet’s servants performed. As we know from Pride and Prejudice, the staff was small. The Bennets weren’t wealthy. There was just Mr. Hill, who took care of the horses and carriages, and Mrs. Hill, the the housekeeper. There were two orphan girls to help with everything else: Sarah, about 18 was a housemaid as was Polly, a girl of eleven or twelve.
It was an exciting day for all the servants when Mr. Bennet added James Smith to the household staff. He helped the aging Mr. Hill in the stables as well as miscellaneous chores. Because he was a hard and conscientious worker, he also helped Sarah and Polly width their chores. James often rose early and had all the fireplaces lit before Sarah had a chance to do them.
Mrs. Hill was especially happy to have James at Longbourn, but not just because of his helpfulness. (I’ll say no more as I don’t want to spoil the story for you.) The story of James’ life before he came to Longbourn is a good part of the novel. How he helped all the servants is another part I liked. The author created a great character in James Smith. I’m sure the author intended us to see a parallel between James Smith and Mr. Darcy.
The time period of Longbourn follows that of the events in Pride and Prejudice. You won’t see a lot of the people and events of Pride and Prejudice in Longbourn, but there are a few. The arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, Jane’s trip to London, and Lydia running off with Wickham are all there, but only in the background and in how they affected the servants. Longbourn, the novel,definitely stands alone.
As I said earlier, I am a Jane Austen fan and Pride and Prejudice is my favorite of her novels. Despite many reasons to dislike this book, I did not. For me Longbourn didn’t take anything away from the original story. If anything, I thought Longbourn enhanced Pride and Prejudice. I have a greater understanding and appreciation for the time period as well as all the people created by both Jane Austen and Jo Baker. Longbourn made me think and really feel for the characters. I’m glad I read it.