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Longbourn, by Jo Baker.

May 24, 2015

Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice, The Servants’ Story, by Jo Baker.  Vintage (2014), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 331 pages

4 stars

A masterful retelling if a classic story from the perspective of the servants, not the Bennets.

This is not simply another spinoff on Jane Austin’s novel. It is a brilliant display of what it means to see events from the viewpoints of those who are usually ignored and invisible. In Longbourn, the Bennets are there but they are not the focus of the novel. They provide the backdrop, the structure, of the narrative. In the foreground are the Bennets’ servants; Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper/cook and her old and ailing husband and the housemaids, Sarah and Polly, both orphans taken from the Poor House. Polly is still a child, Sarah, now a young woman the age of Elizabeth Bennet, is the central character. The novel opens with the arrival of additional servant, James, a strange secretive young man who joins the household as footman. And the footman that the Bingleys bring adds new possibilties to the story. Although the servants experience love and pain just like their “betters,” their chores shape their lives very differently. Reading this book, we learn the details of the usually invisible work of cleaning, sewing and cooking, of providing for much of what we, like, the Bennets, take for granted. As Jo Baker explains, “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.” And we learn of the ongoing frustration and vulnerability of those destined to perform this work.

Yet Longbourn is not a grim or angry book. Baker relates her narrative is a brisk enjoyable fashion. Her critique of social structure which undergrids her book is often expressed in calm, but cutting wit. The book’s plot is full of tension and unexpected twists. The result is a delightful novel that is sheer fun to read.

Jo Baker is an English writer with several excellent books to her credit. I have recently enjoyed and reviewed Undertow, The Telling, and my favorite, The Mermaid’s Daughter. Baker writes well about adventure and war, but I prefer her more domestic writing. In Longbourn, I was less impressed with James’s story before he joined the family, than I was with the actual depiction of the servants’ lives.

I enthusiastically recommend Longbourn to all readers, especially to those who like to explore a diversity of perspectives.

One Comment leave one →
  1. maamej permalink
    May 24, 2015 11:56 pm

    Sounds good, another one to add to my wish list.

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