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14 August 2013

Review: 'Longbourn' by Jo Baker (2013)

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.

The year 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s famous classic love story ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ The publication of Jo Baker’s novel ‘Longbourn’ was specially timed for this occasion, and as a Jane Austen fan I had been looking forward to this book for quite some time. When some of the first reviews started popping up online, I was contacted by the lovely Alison Barrow with the question if I was interested in a review copy of ‘Longbourn.’ Obviously, I was over the moon and I couldn’t wait to start reading to see what Jo Baker had decided to do with one of my favourite love stories of all time.

The Longbourn estate automatically reminds us of the Bennet family in Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but in this novel we get to take a trip downstairs, to find out the stories behind the servants working at Longbourn. There’s Sarah, a hard-working young woman who has been part of the Longbourn household since she was a little girl; Mr. and Mrs. Hill, young Polly and the new footman, James. It’s not entirely clear where James has come from, and Sarah isn’t sure what to think of him. However, she unexpectedly starts to develop feelings for him and suddenly all kinds of things start happening downstairs, which the Bennet family have no idea of…

With this novel, Jo Baker has managed to add a complete new mix of engaging and fascinating characters to ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I love the fact that with this book the reader gets a chance to find out about the things going on below the stairs of the Bennet estate. There are hidden secrets, traces of love and deceit, longing and wishes… Just like any other family, which is what this group of servants really feels like: a family. Jo Baker manages to capture and explain the emotions of these characters perfectly, which is something I really enjoyed. I am also glad the author did not decide to imitate Austen’s writing style; this is a modern novel, and a story on itself. I’d recommend readers to first read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, just because it makes the reading experience a touch more special, but you can also read this novel without any prior knowledge of Austen’s tale.

When I started reading ‘Longbourn’, I felt myself waiting for scenes in which Elizabeth, Jane, or Darcy would make an appearance. However, after reading about 50 pages I was so engrossed in Sarah’s story, I completely forgot about the original ‘Pride and Prejudice’ characters. It was actually quite refreshing to see a different (slightly clueless and ignorant) side of them. I don’t think every Austen fan will be able to appreciate this novel, because Jo Baker has really given it her own twist and added some quite controversial details. However, I personally really enjoyed this opportunity to look at ‘Pride and Prejudice’ from a completely different and fascinating perspective, and I expect that every time I’ll read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in the future I will think of the servants standing in the shadows of almost every single scene. ‘Longbourn’ is an engaging and original novel that provides readers with a fascinating look into the downstairs world of Austen’s most famous tale, and one that once again proves that there are always two sides to every story.


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