Longbourn : a novel by Jo Baker

Longbourn: a novel by Jo Baker (Find in our catalog).  “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”  Thus thinks the housemaid at Longbourn to herself as she watches Miss Elizabeth Bennet set off on her muddy walk across the park to Netherfield.  This delightful and absorbing story is much more than a clever twist on the classic, Pride and Prejudice; it is, according to its editor,  “a beautiful, fully realized work of fiction that casts its spell on its own terms.”  The new novel gives back to Jane Austin fans beloved figures such as Elizabeth and Jane and Mr, Darcy, and also delightfully echoes Pride and Prejudice with well-remembered Austin epigrams.  The plot of Pride and Prejudice runs all the while in the background; however, Longbourn is an entirely new story.

Longbourn takes us into the gritty particulars of the life faced by the lower classes in Regency England, particularly the people in domestic service.  Sarah, the housemaid is our heroine.  She is just out of her teens and increasingly restless.  She feels the injustices of her position keenly and longs to escape by travelling off into the world.  The rest of the domestic help is made up of the cook-housekeeper, Mrs. Hill and her husband, the butler.  There is a maid of all work, Polly, who is a mere child hired from the poorhouse.  Into their settled life of drudgery comes James, a mysteriously reticent footman.  Just as the coming of the Militia to the town raises longings in the breasts of the young ladies of the house, so the coming of James to below-stairs raises complex and secret emotions, not only in Sarah but all the staff.  We see that the lives of the staff are dramatically different from their masters’, and yet the aspirations of  masters and servants remain the same.  It’s when the two worlds cross one into the other that life gets messy.

This is not merely a pastiche of Austen.  The characters are new, genuine and engaging, the the observation is true, the setting absorbing.  The reader plunges in to the book - almost literally into a boiling copper of lye soap suds for the Monday wash-day.  We come to know very quickly what a life of drudgery it is to be a maid, as Sarah’s chilblains crack under the assault of the scalding water and the cold pump handle.  And yet we see that even in these circumstances humanity wins through: in the kitchen there is laughter to be had, and love.


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