I Read Jo Baker’s LONGBOURN

LongbournI’m almost scared to write another gushing review: what is happening that I can’t discern anything negative in my last five reads, stellar all?!

Jo Baker’s Longbourn, the story of Pride and Prejudice‘s barely-glimpsed servants, manages to stay true to Austen’s romance and create a world, characters, and stories running parallel to the original and yet wholly unique. It is quite the achievement, both homage and uniquely itself, beautifully written and with only, at most, one forgiveably faltering section.

One of Longbourn‘s greatest strengths is its rich characterization of servitude’s silent shadows: Mrs. and Mr. Hill, the two housemaids, Sarah and Polly, and footman, James Smith, how their lives intertwine in profound and interesting ways, how fully-formed their stories are, for example, the as lovely-if-quieter romance between Sarah and James as the ones occurring “upstairs”. I also loved how Baker made Wickham more villainous than he appears in P&P, but in keeping with what we learn about him via Austen. Ultimately, however, it is in the richness, the tragedy and joy, of the servants’ inner lives and relationships that the novel’s strengths lie.    

When the novel opened, I thought it would be a condemnation of the serving class’s working-conditions, albeit, expressed with lovely writing. And, it’s true, Baker doesn’t shirk on how difficult their lives were, how little time they had for rest, or the simplest of pleasures; in time, as Baker developped her story, I could see its wasn’t her ultimate purpose, only her context. She never allowed her characters to be defined by their circumstances, but let shine those things that made them human as the Bennets, or as ourselves. If their “working conditions” stood out, and were described in detail, they stood as an indictment of their masters and mistresses. As Sarah notes early in the first chapter: “Each day’s work trickled over into the next, and nothing was ever finished, so you could never say, Look, that’s it, the day’s labour is over and done.” What struck me, as it did Baker, was how constantly they worked, how varied their attitudes towards work: Mrs. Hill used it as an escape, the adorable Polly, something slapdash to be got through, Mr. Hill was beautifully lazy, and Sarah, our heroine and my favourite, as a recognition of where she was in the social strata, but never who she was. She was fearless in her idea of finding fulfillment, of possibility; I was moved when Sarah said to Polly (whose HEA, by the way, is one of the novel’s coolest surprises), ” ‘Do you ever think,’ Sarah asked, ‘that it would be good if there was somewhere else you could go?’… ‘…somewhere you could just be, and not always be obliged to do. Somewhere where you could be alone, and nobody wants or expects anything of you…’ “

Longbourn also contains a wonderful romance, with all the elements we love, one of my favourites being Sarah and James’s first encounter:

‘I don’t know what to make of you at all,’ she said.

‘Please don’t trouble yourself to try.’

She spun away, and clumped off back to the kitchen. He was such a frustrating mixture of helpfulness, courtesy and incivility that she could indeed form no clear notion of him.

A wonderfully rendered “romance” moment: the equal parts attraction, exasperation, and curiosity when heroine meets hero; and, of course, a brilliant echo of Elizabeth’s reaction to Darcy upon their encounter. Plus banter! James is smitten from the get-go, but there be obstacles (no spoilers); his sense of Sarah is marvellously put when I read this metaphoric morsel: “But Sarah. Those clear grey eyes of hers; you could see she was always thinking. She peered at him like he was a slipped stitch: unforeseen, infuriating, just asking to be unpicked.”

At Longbourn‘s heart is Mrs. Hill; her story proves to be as compelling and heart-tugging as Sarah’s, Polly’s, and even Mr. Hill’s. Above all, she is the mother-figure who keeps her little world intact, with her own brand of kindness and love:

There was so much to be thankful for: there was pleasure in her work, in the rituals and routines of service, the care and conservation of beautiful things, the baking of good bread and the turning of rough, raw foods into savoury and sustaining meals. There was pleasure, too, in the little clutch of people that she now had clustered around her. If she could but be certain that they would continue in this manner, that James would settle, that Sarah could be made to see sense, that Polly would become steady and useful; if she could but know that this would tend toward continuance, and not towards dissolution, then she could be quite content.

And yet, Mrs. Hill’s foil is double-fold: firstly, practically, her understanding of the entailment means her safe world can come apart with a new master; then, there’s the Sarah of the intellect and “revolutionary” streak: “It was all as arbitrary and as far beyond their control as the weather. To live so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies was, she thought, no way to live at all.” If Mrs. Hill endures; Sarah questions and her questions lead us to a revisionist, revolutionary view of that ultimate P&P dreamscape, Pemberley:

The wagon trundled on, but Sarah’s gaze was stuck; she twisted round in her seat to keep the house in sight. It was so extraordinary: how did it all start, property and wealth and beauty like that? Who staked out a fence, strung out lines and said, This is my land and nobody else’s; these fields are mine, these woods are mine; this water, reflecting the white moon, is mine; and all the fish that swim in the water are mine; and all the birds that fly and roost in the woods are mine; and the very air is mine while it moves over my land; and all of this will be mine, and after I am gone, it will be my son’s; and it will never leave our hands, not while there are still sons left to inherit it. Because there was, there must have been a time before, when the fish swam and the fowl flew and were not anybody’s at all, and the world was young, when Adam and Eve staggered out of Eden all baffled and ashamed.

In the end, Sarah makes a choice and it is her choice, not easy, but hers; our final glimpse of Sarah, James, Mrs. Hill, even Mr. Hill, of Polly too, are people who live full lives, at times, tragic and constricted, at others, joyous and free. And if there’s a price to the HEA, it doesn’t come at the expense of the poorest of the poor.

There was one contrived aspect to Longbourn and it involved James’s backstory, shifting the narrative from Longbourn and England to another time and place, but it didn’t deter from my enjoyment overall. Longbourn is a novel I’ll be thinking about with awe and affection for a long, long time.

Jo Baker’s Longbourn has been out since 2013 and I’m glad I finally cracked my copy open. I hope you do too and that you love it as much as I did.

10 thoughts on “I Read Jo Baker’s LONGBOURN

  1. I shunned this book for years because I find most Austen-inspired novels so dreary, but I thoroughly admired it when I finally got to it. (I was inspired to get to it at last by reading other of Baker’s novels, as you might remember from my own blog – every one of them is excellent.)

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    1. I actually agree with you. I’m not a fan of the Austen “cult,” though I love the novels, each and every one. (I was quite abashed at attending a JASNA Convention once when it was in Montreal…I was the only one not in Regency costume!)

      I’m so glad to hear all her novels are this good b/c I was debating ordering them. I’m trotting off to your blog…

      Of course, now I’m itching to teach P&P and Longbourn together.

      Did you know they’re making the film: I wonder how disappointed we’ll be in it???!!

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  2. I cannot tell you how happy I am (vicariously but also for *you*, my dear) that you’ve had such a streak of excellent reads! No better way to break a terrible, horrible, no-good reading slump than being lucky with a few reads in a row. May it long continue!

    I have this one in the TBR; I got it early on after release, because I was intrigued by the premise: it goes so against the usual historical genre romance fare! Not just ordinary folk, but the servants to one of the genre’s most idolized characters: Lizzie Bennett herself! But then ::sigh:: my own reading slump hit and this book, with hundreds of others, has been left languishing. Your review is a good reminder of why I got it, and your liking of it more than enough encouragement. Must move it up the pile!

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    1. I’m so glad it’s in your TBR b/c I thought of you when I was reading it. This is book the Lady of the Aztecs would love. There are a couple of threads I would have liked to see explored even more, but I totally get why Baker did what she did and what she felt was within her power to express the best way she could. It’s such a terrific book and writing has such ease: you’ll both revel in the writing and want to turn pages quickly too. A reader conflict that is as good as it gets.

      Since I’m reading the latest St. Cyr now, it’s likely my critical sense (like that unpicked stitch quotation I used in the review) will remain unpicked! 😉

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  3. I thought I would love this historical novel. An intelligent rethinking of (& meta-commentary on) P&P from the point of view of the servants – what a great idea. The late 18th and early 19th centuries were an awful time for the British labouring classes – something many historical romances ignore. But I have to admit that as much as admire Baker’s prose, by the end I was frustrated with Longbourn.

    My major problem is that Baker’s big plot twist about James depends on a serious twisting of Mr Bennet’s character. Austen makes it very clear that Mr Bennet has serious faults, he is selfishly lazy, only interested in his pleasures, disrespectful and passive-agressive to his wife, mean-spirited in his teasing of his daughters, etc. But his character is not that of philanderer or cheat (unlike Wickham or Willoughby or Henry Crawford). Austen tells us outright in chapter 42 that “Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment [in his marriage] which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments.”

    My other problem related more to the economic/historical realities of running a place like Longhorn. The Bennets are not poor (at least as long as Mr Bennet lives) – and Longbourn would have had more than 2 maidservants, a housekeeper/cook, butler, and footman. Maybe not all their servants would have lived at Longbourn or worked inside everyday, but Sarah would have had more help – including likely a laundry maid or two who did the laundry. Remember that even Mrs and Miss Bates in Emma have one servant; the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility still have 2 servants when they move to their modest Devon cottage. Servants were sadly cheap through most of the 18th and 19th century, which is why even people of fairly modest means could afford at least 1-2. (And female servants were super, super cheap.)

    I don’t think Baker needed to reduce the servant numbers to offer an interesting take on Longbourn “downstairs” or to illustrate what Austen doesn’t talk about in her books, the unseen labour of servants and especially the unseen labour of female servants. I thought her readings on how Sarah might feel about Lizzie or the other sisters were great. And that lots of the interactions between Sarah and the other servants were wonderful. But in the end her choices to up the drama by underplaying the number of servants and rewriting Mr Bennet’s character for a big plot twist made this book a frustrating read.

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    1. What a wonderful, compelling critique! Thank you for the commentary, it helped me look back on the novel in a new light.

      You have such interesting points. I have to say I didn’t consider Mr. Bennett’s characterization “out of character” so to speak, mainly because he’s not a Wickham, or Willoughby. My impression of the relationship with Margaret was of a man of his class who fell in love with a woman not of his class. And that he behaved pretty much as someone typical of his class. Beyond Margaret, Baker doesn’t make Mr. Bennett to be a rake, or someone cruel and sexually rapacious like Wickham. Moreover, I think that her portrayal of Mrs. Bennett is if not sympathetic, quite nuanced. Mr. Bennett, an introvert, married a woman who thrives on society, of no intellectual pursuits, or interests. She’s Lydia in 30 years, really. Except Wickham won’t be as indifferently kind as Mr. Bennett. I also thought the interactions between Margaret and Mrs. Bennett had a kind of womanly sympathy that was quite well done. Mrs. Hill “suits” Mr. Bennett and that’s the tragedy of class, and of a failure of character on Mr. Bennett’s part. He’s no hero, certainly, only the “lower” classes have that privilege in Baker’s story. I thought her portrayal of the Darcy’s marriage, in that final scene, when Sarah leaves, was brilliant. The only woman in that room with agency was Sarah. Elizabeth seems lost and uncertain at Pemberley. And the idealized view of it that we get from P&P is upended in a brilliant way; hence, the affection for Longbourn.

      It’s also interesting what you say about the number of servants and I would agree with you. Though I have to admit, many scenes made me remember and appreciate Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, which has the same aura of genteel shabbiness as Baker seemed to want to get across. I think Baker’s choice was a literary one, probably. I thought, maybe, (as I too agree, historically unrealistic) she wanted her character “canvas” (like a play) was one that would be better controlled. And maybe she failed in other ways, but it was worth it to her?

      I adore a good literary debate: thank you so much! 🙂 I miss the long commentary blogging days a lot. Please come back!

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      1. Hmm for me I admire both Baker and Wright’s take on P&P in part for what their interpretations are trying to do, but both of their versions also frustrate me because they seem to want to torture the text in order to get their ideas crammed in there. (I also feel this way about Rozema’s Mansfield Park, which even with its flaws is the most interesting interpretation of Mansfield Park out there.)

        Why do such smart creators feel the need to hang their ideas on Austen? Why can’t they just do what Sarah Waters does — create their own story about a historical era and its flaws without dragging in Austen? In the end I think what Baker, Wright, and Rozema are responding to, is not so much Austen, but modern interpretations of Austen and the way they romanticize Britain’s past and erase its problematical history around race, class, and imperialism. So poor Austen is being used both to romanticize and critique the stories we tell ourselves about past.

        I agree that the relationship between Mrs Bennet and Mrs Hill was well drawn and I admired the final scene with Sarah and Elizabeth at Pemberley. Going from Longbourn to Pemberley would have been difficult, even if Elizabeth was a gentleman’s daughter and therefore (in theory) Darcy’s social equal. There were lots of individual moments like that scene that I admired, but the book as a whole just didn’t hang together for me precisely because too many character choices or plot choices felt just wrong or anachronistic. I mentioned Mr Bennet and the problems about the servants because those are the issues that I still remember (it’s been 3 years at least since I read the book). Looking at your excellent summary, I see why Baker’s reimagining works for you (and it helps me understand why it works for others). But as much as the central plot twist intrigues me (Mr Bennet does have a son, but he’s illegitimate!), for me Baker distorts Mr Bennet’s character to serve her plot. I find it believable that Wickham sexually harasses the housemaids – that seems to me all of piece with how Austen describes Wickham — but Baker’s characterization of Mr Bennet seems to contradict Austen’s characterization of him.

        And thank you right back for saying that you enjoyed my comment – I haven’t commented much of anywhere for the last few years, but I do enjoy reading your reviews.

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        1. “Why do such smart creators feel the need to hang their ideas on Austen? Why can’t they just do what Sarah Waters does”…

          So, so true, I guess Ms Austen is a “money-maker” and I also think no matter how smart the creator, Austen’s influence is so deeply ingrained in anglo culture that we can’t help but poke at her: she’s a lot like Shakespeare, or the journey that Odysseus took. We want to tell and retell and retell the story.

          I’m presently reading Winifred Holtby’s South Riding and there’s a marvelous moment when the central female character (it’s definitely an ensemble piece, much like Eliot’s Middlemarch) meets the brooding hero when he’s on his horse and he nearly knocks her down. It’s not as gothic or dramatic as Jane Eyre, mainly b/c the female character ruefully recalls Brontë’s Jane at the very moment, so, yes, we keep re-enacting these scenes, but are vain enough, the creators, I guess, to want to put their stamp on them.

          I agree, I didn’t like Rozema’s Mansfield Park at all. I do have affection for Wright’s P&P and I adore both versions thus far that I’ve seen of Persuasion, Shergold’s (admittedly, maybe Rupert Penry Jones is too glamorously good-looking for Capt. Wentworth?) and Michell’s. In the end, the best way to appreciate Austen is to read her! Juliet Stevenson’s audio narrations are also good: I love her Emma in particular.

          I loved Waters’s The Little Stranger and it’s a novel that still frustrates me, still which is a good thing, I think; I haven’t “figured” it out yet. I have all her books in the TBR, right next to Patricia Highsmith’s, a propos. So many books, a dearth of time to read them.

          Thank you kindly for reading my reviews, it always comes as a surprise, even after all these years, awfully glad you enjoy them!

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  4. I’m so glad you loved this, as did I. I don’t see it as capitalizing on Austen’s popularity at all, since it paints much less sympathetic pictures of popular characters that the “cult” members will probably loathe. And the differing characterizations worked for me. From my review: “In many ways, the story extends the characters to their logical extremes, showing what else might have happened to a Mr. Bennet who’s thoughtlessly susceptible to attractive women and a Wickham who would callously run off with a fifteen-year-old girl… and an Elizabeth who’s forced to check her natural vivacity. If you love the original, it can be painful to see the characters in this light—but it feels like an equal truth rather than a contradiction of the original text.”

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