Longbourn by Jo Baker

Writing.ie | Historical Fiction

By Grushenka Arnold

Pride and Prejudice: The Servants’ Story
I certainly do have a penchant for historical fiction it has to be said. And, I do tend to get a little overexcited about late eighteenth, early nineteenth century tales. More particularly, I do prefer novels set in the Victorian era, but I am not too fussy. I adore novels from such writers as the Brontё Sisters, Austen and Dickens, right up to contemporary historical fiction writers such as Diane Setterfield, Sarah Waters, Anya Seton and now, Jo Baker.

The book title ‘Longbourn’ is a giveaway for those who have read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. For those not so familiar with it, Longbourn is residence to the Bennet family featured in Pride and Prejudice. Jo Bakers’ story does not take up where Jane Austen left off, but more specifically, the story runs concurrently with that of the story in Austen’s novel. Austin wrote about the family above, Baker writes about the lives of the servants below.

It is a heartfelt truly endearing tale; sometimes sorrowful, sometimes joyful and sometimes moving, as it portrays the back-breaking work the servants’ endured, working tirelessly to serve the Bennet family.

Although Austen was an early nineteenth century writer writing early nineteenth century fiction, Baker is a twenty-first century writer writing about nineteenth century fiction. Some have argued that has given way to the use of some unnecessary expletives which Austen would never have included. But one should keep in mind that this is the servants’ story and not the story of the Bennet family. Thus, some expletives may have been more commonly used among the servants, or used as terms of reference. The odd expletive does not take away from the story at all and Baker manages to encapsulate the very essence of the Georgian era perfectly.

It was a time very different from our own. The distinction of class was a prominent feature in everyday societal life. The working class worked their fingers to the bone, ensuring that the elite in society had a very easy trouble-free life indeed. Sometimes the servants’ even risked their own health and would forego pleasures in order to put the family’s needs above their own.

It was a time though, that no matter what rank was held in society; people had manners and respect for their fellow man.

Similar to Austen’s novel, Longbourn is also written in three volumes. The first two volumes introduce us to the lives of the servants’ downstairs and the family that they serve upstairs. Hidden secrets, love, sadness, joy and heartache are themes interspersed throughout the book indicating the very different lives led above and below.
The central character Sarah, is a devoted lovable housemaid working hard, but secretly imagines a life beyond service; travelling, love, happiness, a life away from the Bennet family.

Mrs. Hill a stern but compassionate housekeeper keeps Sarah and Polly (another housemaid) in check, while ensuring the clockwork and efficient running of Longbourn.
The tranquil equilibrium of life at Longbourn is suddenly brought into upheaval, as the mysterious arrival of a new footman sparks curiosity among the housemaids. He brings with him a secret past and an intriguing charm that Sarah would like to get to know better.

It is also a time of unrest as the Militia come to stay at Longbourn causing a sense of unease in the new footman. All five Bennet sisters do feature in the story, as well as mentions of Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and of course, Mr. Darcy.

A short excerpt: Sarah tends to Elizabeth, one of the Bennet sisters:
‘Elizabeth had a headache. It was the second headache of the day. She had been rereading her letters from Jane, and they had made her tearful…..Sarah would have loved to have a letter to look at herself; she would have loved to have the luxury of tears and headaches: the darkened parlour, a cool cloth for the forehead, and the peace that came with the family gone out to drink their tea…’ (Baker, p. 217).

This is a truly splendid story offering an exceptional insight into a time that some of us could still learn from.

It is evident that the author painstakingly researched the content for this book and I look forward to reading other offerings from this very talented writer.

For Pride and Prejudice fans, I would thoroughly recommend this book.

About the Author
Jo Baker is an accomplished author of numerous novels including: Offcomer, The Mermaids Child and The Telling. Baker was educated at Oxford and Belfast, and continued writing while completing her PhD. Baker is married with two children and resides in Lancaster.
Longbourn is also scheduled to be made into a film.
Doubleday Books: London 2013.
You can find more at www.jobakerwriter.com
Book Reviewer: Grushenka Arnold©

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