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Longbourn by Jo BakerTitle: Longbourn
Author: Jo Baker
ISBN: 9780385351232
No. of Pages: 352
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Knopf Doubleday
Release Date: 8 October 2013
Bottom Line: Fascinating and gritty

“The servants at Longbourn estate–only glancingly mentioned in Jane Austen’s classic–take center stage in Jo Baker’s lively, cunning new novel. Here are the Bennets as we have never known them: seen through the eyes of those scrubbing the floors, cooking the meals, emptying the chamber pots. Our heroine is Sarah, an orphaned housemaid beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When the militia marches into town, a new footman arrives under mysterious circumstances, and Sarah finds herself the object of the attentions of an ambitious young former slave working at neighboring Netherfield Hall, the carefully choreographed world downstairs at Longbourn threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, up-ended. From the stern but soft-hearted housekeeper to the starry-eyed kitchen maid, these new characters come vividly to life in this already beloved world. Jo Baker shows us what Jane Austen wouldn’t in a captivating, wonderfully evocative, moving work of fiction.”

Thoughts: Austen fans looking to gain more insight into Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s or Jane and Mr. Bingley’s relationships will be disappointed, as Ms. Baker makes it obvious from the very beginning that this is not a retelling of Ms. Austen’s story. All of the major action that happens in the original is mentioned in passing and treated with amusement or derision, as the case may warrant, by the Bennet servants. For, they have more important things to do than worry about love affairs or other trivialities, something Ms. Baker drives home in her close attention to detail.

Longbourn is also a much darker novel. Besides the obvious class differences and the sheer magnitude of work Sarah and the rest of her service family must perform for the Bennets, there are scenes of war, of abject poverty, of flogging, of rape, and of slavery. There are discussions of bodily fluids, wounds, illnesses, and other very human ailments. In addition, the language mirrors the darkness. Gone is the prettily-dressed satire and dainty turns of phrase. It is a working man’s language to match the working men and women at the heart of the novel. Even the love triangle is less idealized and more down to earth. Both James and Tol are intriguing men in their own right, but the feelings they evoke within Sarah, the choices she must make regarding either man, and the worries she faces as a consequence of her actions are not as delicate as those mentioned in Ms. Austen’s original.

Yet, specifically because of its differences, Longbourn is an intelligent, detailed glimpse into the life of a servant. While some recent novels and television shows tend to glorify the life in service and the pride the servants have in the families they serve, Ms. Baker shows the true slog that such a life entails. The bone-weary exhaustion that never fades, the blistered hands, the worn fingers, lack of a proper rest, lack of privacy, everything done for the sake of others – nothing about this life is glamorous. Sarah is a wonderful heroine, strong and capable and yet innocent and fragile, and readers cannot help but hope that she will find her own Prince Charming, someone who will help make her life a little easier and her burden a little lighter. That she realizes – and helps the reader understand – that sometimes happily ever after means going through life with a loved one and does not mean becoming a well-to-do princess is made all the sweeter by the journey she attends in order to come to this realization.

Jo Baker’s Longbourn follows Jane Austen’s original chapter for chapter, making it delight for Austen fans, but the two books are so distinctly different in their scope that they might as well be about completely new characters. Whereas Ms. Austen pokes gentle fun at the Bennet girls and their marriage-obsessed mother, Ms. Baker treats the Bennet girls as aggravations, their delicate manners belying the not-so-delicate work that must be done by others. The topics are weightier and more serious as well, with mentions of war, slavery, flogging, starvation, and other human depravities. In addition, Ms. Baker’s version of Longbourn does not hide behind pretty decorations. Instead, she reveals all of the miserable, gory details that come with being alive, something the Bennets definitely do not acknowledge. With some unexpected plot twists and character connections, Longbourn becomes an excellent novel in its own right, showcasing the acute difference between the classes and introducing Austen fans to an entirely new family bond.

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