Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t even heard of this book until I read a wonderful review of it on author Kate Forsyth’s blog. Being a lover of Jane Austen since I was very young, I was dazzled by the premise of this novel; in fact, I was awed by the imagination and ideas underpinning it – Baker has taken the story of Pride and Prejudice and created something completely original using the well-known tale of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy as a frame narrative but telling it from the point of view of the Bennett family’s servants.

Don’t for a minute believe this is Upstairs/Downstairs Austen-style. Longbourn is so much more than that. For a start, “upstairs” is only relevant in regard to the impact it has on “downstairs”, but that’s not to do this novel justice either. Richer, more complex, imbued with a period-appropriate sensibility that manages to gesture to larger things, to a wider world and the promise of more, it also imagines a milieu at once familiar and strange and all together believable.

While the chaLongbournracters we know and love from Pride make an appearance, Lizzie, Jane, Lydia, Kitty, Mary, Mr and Mrs Bennet, Mr Bingley, Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham along with many others, it is those we’re not so familiar with, the characters who were mere whispers in the hallways, shadows in the corners of the rooms, absences that nonetheless made meals appear, cleaned the house, did the laundry, emptied chamber pots, drove the coaches, prioritised the needs of the upstairs family over their own and, in one barely memorable exchange, we’re told fetched shoe roses, who are centre stage in this book.

In Longbourn (named after the village in which the Bennett house stands), we follow the daily life of housemaid Sarah, the much put-upon housekeeper and cook, Mrs Hill, her gap-toothed husband, young Polly (Mary) and, later, the footman James. Through mainly Sarah’s eyes we come to understand that life upstairs runs smoothly but only through the hard work and sacrifices, the constant scrutiny and awareness of those who suffer (without complaint) downstairs. But because they accept what life has meted out, how birth gifts or damns you with blood and social position and the possibility or not of rising above it, it doesn’t prevent them dreaming of different things, different outcomes for themselves and those they care about.

Assumptions about the servants and the indifference with which their needs and emotional wants are treated (or ignored) by the Bennetts and others who cross their sometimes chaotic threshold is subtly exposed. Lizzie Bennett, the woman many readers swooned over (almost as much as Mr Darcy) and cheered as an early champion of feminist principles and modern relationships is, in Longbourn, revealed to be as much as a myopic product of her class as any other gentlewoman of the period. Even Jane, who is generally thought to be considerate and kind, is unable to empathise with her servants – her gestures and questions revealing her ignorance – not wilful, but inevitable. That the Bennett girls, even giddy and selfish Lydia and Kitty, are never held to account by the servants who share their lives, that there’s no resentment, demonstrates an acceptance of circumstance and treatment a modern reader might find difficult to handle. Baker is masterful in her gentle peeling back of private layers to show how ingrained social practice and birth are in Austen-times and thus readers also come to accept that this is how it is and the story rolls on, across the hills and dales, through muddy fields and streets, the dark narrow lanes of town and in and out of the rooms of the Bennett house.

The love story of Mr Darcy and Lizzie takes a back seat in this tale as a slow-burning love affair unfolds downstairs, as complex personal histories, reasons for certain behaviours are hinted at and skeletons are spied in servants’ closets too. As the tale progresses and the Bennett girls move towards that which their mother wants more than anything for them, marriage that will elevate them socially, it’s below stairs that the action and poignant drama takes place – yearning looks, snatched conversations, overheard exchanges, caution thrown aside or bundled close.

What I particularly loved about Longbourn and the way in which Baker makes every scene and event in Pride and Prejudice match those in her book, is that she also bestows characters in Austen’s novel with a darkness and complexity that’s as unexpected as it is gripping. I won’t say anymore except that you will never think of Mr Bennett in quite the same way and as for Mr Wickham – well, if you thought him a bounder in Austen’s hands, in Baker’s he becomes something much worse.

Baker also takes us beyond the final pages of Pride and Prejudice and allows us a glimpse into Lizzie’s life as Mrs Darcy. It’s testimony to the power and beauty of Baker’s tale that this, while a nice curiousity, is very much rendered second place to the much more interesting and heartfelt outcome awaiting her main characters. I couldn’t credit that I was longing for Lizzie and Mr Darcy to vanish so I might know more of Baker’s creations and their dénouement.

Written in beautiful, evocative prose that like the barley sugars so beloved of Polly and Lydia, you want to hold it in your mouth so as to savour the sweetness, Longbourn recreates a time and place we thought we knew but are invited to revisit and see it through different eyes and understand its alternate hues.

As much as I adore Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn deserves champions as well and I am happy to be one. It gives voice to the silent, a presence to the shades that walked the halls of stately and not so stately homes; it allows the young men who sacrificed themselves for the politics and wars of others to stand up and be briefly counted, to be remembered for other than their officers’ gambling, partying and distractions. Not afraid to explore pain, desire, loss, grief and sacrifice, Baker also imbues the often bleak tale with humour, love, friendship and a deep compassion.

Simply stunning.

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