Review: Longbourn, Jo Baker

Review: Longbourn, Jo BakerLongbourn by Jo Baker
Published by Alfred A. Knopf on October 8, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: E-Book, eBook
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Pride and Prejudice was only half the story • If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them. In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.

I just loved this book. It’s hard for me to believe a retelling of Pride and Prejudice could be better than this. The lives of the servants, some of whom rate barely a mention, are fully realized in Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Mrs. Hill’s backstory is fascinating (and entirely believable, based on what we know of Mr. Bennet); she is mentioned only a handful of times in Austen’s novel. Sarah is mentioned only once in Pride and Prejudice, and the others are never mentioned by name.

I liked seeing Mr. Collins get a more sympathetic portrayal—he’s much kinder to the servants than some of the Bennets themselves. Jo Baker’s Wickham is odious—this story puts his elopement with Lydia in an entirely new and disturbing light. I appreciated Baker’s empathy for Mrs. Bennet. In her hands, Elizabeth Bennet is imperfect and a bit thoughtless.

In addition, Baker captures the setting well. Longbourn and Pemberley are drawn in vivid relief from the vantage point of the kitchens, servants’ quarters, and stables. There are some beautiful descriptive passages of the scenery, particularly near the end of the novel.

Austen doesn’t say much about the Napoleonic Wars; many critics have pondered the oversight. Baker makes them a central part of one character’s story. I also appreciated the way the book didn’t shy away from issues of race and class. It’s clear from the context that Mr. Bingley has earned his money somehow as part of the slave trade, and his former slave Ptolemy Bingley is a brilliant character.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Jane Austen, but even if you read Jane Austen and felt like something was missing, this book might be what you’re looking for.


Summer Reading

Photo by Vassil Tsvetanov Ah, summer. That glorious time of year when it seems like all the time in the world to read is within our grasp. It seems like my TBR pile is getting larger and larger. The good news is that I have managed to find myself a book club, which I’ve been trying to do for some time. The book club is reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I have been wanting to read Adichie for some time, and without the impetus of the book club, I’m not sure when I would have gotten around to it.

I’m finally reading The Age of Innocence. I’ve seen the movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder many times, but I haven’t actually read the book, and it’s long overdue. I’m enjoying it a great deal so far. Beyond these two books, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to read. I signed up for a course in Greek and Roman Mythology through Coursera, and it has some required reading. Luckily, we start with The Odyssey, and I read it so recently (plus I’ve taught it a bunch of times), that I don’t feel tasked to re-read it for the class. I’m trying to figure out what’s been on my list for a long time that I really want to try to read.

However, it’s shaping up to be the summer of catching up on things I’ve meant to read for a long time. Case in point? I really would like to get to Toni Morrison’s [amazon_link id=”140003342X” target=”_blank” ]Song of Solomon[/amazon_link] and Ernest Hemingway’s [amazon_link id=”0684803356″ target=”_blank” ]For Whom the Bell Tolls[/amazon_link], both of which I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I keep picking up [amazon_link id=”045123281X” target=”_blank” ]The Pillars of the Earth[/amazon_link] and putting it back down again. I didn’t used to be so squeamish about really long books with tiny print, but in the last few years or so, I don’t know… I really have to want to read it if it’s that long. I’m not as bothered by listening to them as audiobooks, curiously. Perhaps it’s that my eyes are starting to bother me now when I try to read really tiny print. As I said, I wasn’t bothered by big books with tiny print so much in the past.

I have a lot of books on my Kindle that I want to get to, as well: [amazon_link id=”1250012570″ target=”_blank” ]Eleanor & Park[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0345806972″ target=”_blank” ]Longbourn[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0307948196″ target=”_blank” ]The Dressmaker[/amazon_link], and many others besides.

I also need to read [amazon_link id=”0763662585″ target=”_blank” ]More Than This[/amazon_link] by Patrick Ness, as it’s my school’s Upper School summer read. What are you reading this summer?

Photo by Vassil Tsvetanov