Longbourn by Jo Baker: Let’s flip and see the other side of the pancake

longbourneditI like Jane Austen. I am one of those people who have read all of the Jane Austen books many times and own the movie versions both BBC and Hollywood of her novels. (Sidenote: if you have not seen the BBC mini-series of Sense and Sensibility from 2008 you must if you are an Austenite. It is the perfect combination of Austen demure sensibility and the dramatic modern remakes). Any title that has the word Austen in it or seems connected to the beloved author Jane will definitely cause me to give it a second glance. And yet I am cautious about books that claim to add or give a new perspective to any of Austen’s novels. Because so often they seem to rely on the fame of Austen’s characters to get by without building any real story or having any profound writing on their own. When I saw that “Longbourn” was on many of the best books of 2013 lists and had a Heather’s Pick sticker at Chapters, I hoped this book would escape the Austen coattail curse. I think “Longbourne” has succeeded where many other sequels/prequels/remakes failed and is a book that any reader, Austenite or not, will enjoy.

“Longbourne” is from the perspective of Mrs. Hill, Sarah and Polly, the housemaids in the Bennet household, and the new footman, James Smith. The majority of the novel coincides with the events in “Pride and Prejudice” (which I will refer to as P&P from henceforth), so we get snippets of those classic plot points. There are parts of the novel that did drag a little because I knew some of the events that were to come and Sarah’s story is dictated a little too much by Elizabeth’s. There are also moments where Baker uses memorable phrases from Austen’s book which feels like Baker was screaming “I’m writing an Austen remake!!” (eg. “Sarah, crossing the yard a little later with the pig-bucket, saw Elizabeth passing the side of the house in Lady Catherine’s wake. They disappeared into the little wilderness.” p.297, emphasis mine on a phrase from the same scene in Austen’s novel that is re-used in almost every P&P remake and Austen biography movie). But these two drawbacks appear only a few times and “Longbourn” more often than not has a life and wording all its own.

Baker’s strongest point, in fact, is that although she uses the plot and characters of “Pride and Prejudice” as a starting point, she creates fascinating characters of her own in Sarah and James. She also provides them engrossing storylines that do separate from the love stories of the Bennett sisters while still working with the P&P timeline. At the end of the novel, Sarah and James leave the Bennet circle entirely, and we experience their independent protagonist stories.

Baker also engrosses the reader through fascinating details of domestic life in 19th century England and the realities faced by lower class women like Mrs. Hill and Sarah. You feel Sarah’s desire for something more from her life than the constant work and yet the reality that there is little she can do to alter her current situation. There is also the complicated and gentle love story of Sarah and James, while she grows from a restless and fiery girl into a confident woman and he comes to terms with his brutal soldiering past.

As a lover of the P&P tale, there is an extra element of enjoyment from this book for Austen fans. Baker adds new elements to this classic story. We experience the well known characters from a different angle; the angle of their servants. We see that although Jane and Elizabeth are kind and sensible, the lives and hearts of their servants are almost invisible to them, and they exhibit selfishness and entitlement in comparison to their servants’ behaviours. And Baker gives a new view of Mr. Bennet through the scandal and intrigue of Mrs. Hill’s back story. Baker adds plot points, insights, and personality traits that build her own story and characters while still staying within the realm of possibility of the P&P world.

If you like “Pride and Prejudice”, historical novels set in the 19th century, and a coming-of-age love story with a bit of sex thrown in (that Jane Austen would have only hinted at subtly), then you should read this book.

4/5 bacon strips


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