A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW NOTABLE BOOK • The servants take center stage in this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice.
While Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters fuss over balls and husbands, Sarah, their orphaned housemaid, is beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When a new footman arrives at Longbourn under mysterious circumstances, the carefully choreographed world she has known all her life threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended. Mentioned only fleetingly in Jane Austen’s classic, here Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Regency England and, in doing so, uncovers the real world of the novel that has captivated readers’ hearts around the world for generations.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Set in the beloved world of Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn invites readers to view the classic love story through the eyes of the Bennet household’s domestic staff. In between washing linens and emptying chamber pots, housemaid Sarah observes all. Jane Austen fans will appreciate the way that Sarah’s fractious relationship with James the footman begins to mirror the legendary romance unfolding upstairs. Jo Baker’s unpretty realism brings the Regency era to vivid life, while her wit and sense of irony do Austen proud.
The servants of the Bennett estate manage their own set of dramas in this vivid re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. While the marriage prospects of the Bennett girls preoccupy the family upstairs, downstairs the housekeeper Mrs. Hill has her hands full managing the staff that keeps Longbourn running smoothly: the young housemaids, Sarah and Polly; the butler, Mr. Hill; and the mysterious new footman, James Smith, who bears a secret connection to Longbourn. At the heart of the novel is a budding romance between James and orphan-turned-housemaid Sarah, whose dutiful service belies a "ferocious need for notice, an insistence that she fully be taken into account." When an expected turn of events separates the young lovers, Sarah must contend with James's complicated past and the never-ending demands of the Bennetts. Baker (The Mermaid's Child) offers deeper insight into Austen's minor characters, painting Mr. Collins in a more sympathetic light while making the fiendish Mr. Wickham even more sinister. The Militia, which only offered opportunities for flirtations in the original, here serves as a reminder of the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars. Baker takes many surprising risks in developing the relationships between the servants and the Bennetts, but the end result steers clear of gimmick and flourishes as a respectful and moving retelling. A must-read for fans of Austen, this literary tribute also stands on its own as a captivating love story. First printing of 150,000.
This is a slow-moving story built around the "downstairs" people. You need to be patient while reading as nothing very much happens during most of the first half of the book. It is, however, interesting reading about the daily lives & duties of these hard working characters & you do get to know their personalities along the way. Plot development is slow, but the writing is descriptive and fascinating. It's a good read as long as you don't expect a lot of drama.
I loved seeing inside the Bennet household from the viewpoint of the house staff. The book was meticulously researched to reflect accurately the details of the period. I will never again read Austen without thinking about all those others lurking in the wings but not on stage.
Shame on Baker
Ms. Baker made a great deal of money off of Jane Austin. It is as of she either did not read Pride and Prejudice or has no respect for Austin's characters. Elizabeth becomes superficial and weak, Mr. Bennett is distracted with affairs rather than books, and Mrs. Bennett abuses Laudanum for so many years that she would have become an addict or overdosed. I am shocked this book received any positive notices or respect.