Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker
Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey is the crude shorthand, but Longbourn by Jo Baker, a new take on the Pride and Prejudice story, is so much more than that.
Like so many, I fell in love with the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, but I didn’t read an Austen novel until eight years later. Even now I’ve read just two Austen books and know the rest of the stories only through movie versions. Though I live in England now and am certainly an Anglophile (I love the English classics, have a Master’s degree in Victorian literature, and my mother-in-law happens to be the vicar at the Austen family parish of Steventon in Hampshire!), I’m not a devotee like many of the American enthusiasts I know, who might indulge in fan fiction, memorabilia, and specialty tourism.
Longbourn is (for the most part) meticulously contemporaneous with the action of Pride and Prejudice (bar a couple of flashbacks and the last few chapters, which move beyond the world of the novel), which makes it a more satisfyingly canonical tale than Austen “sequels” like P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. As in James’s novel (which I also reviewed here), it is necessary to introduce new characters to the plot, but in this case those additions are more believable and essential.
A house the size of Longbourn was run by a small band of servants; all Baker has done in the way of invention is to give faces and stories to those previously nameless below-stairs characters – expanded roles for Mr. and Mrs. Hill (the latter both housekeeper and cook); young maids Sarah and Polly; and a new footman with murky origins, James Smith. Even when limitations on readers’ knowledge do require minor adjustments, such as Sarah accompanying Lizzie on her trip to London and Kent (otherwise we’d miss Darcy’s first proposal), the plot exigencies are entirely plausible.
Our protagonist, housemaid Sarah, is a feisty heroine from the lineage of both Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre; indeed, the first line is particularly reminiscent of Jane Eyre: “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering.” Like Miss Eyre, Sarah is an eager orphan who turns to books for temporary escape from her troubles; like Lizzie, she faces a similar choice between two very different suitors; and again like Jane, she will set off on a fraught, solitary adventure to secure true love.
Baker builds sympathy for her characters by shifting between third person limited perspectives; usually that point-of-view will be one of the servants’, as in Sarah’s view of Jane Bennet: “She was as sweet, soothing and undemanding as a baked milk-pudding.” But occasionally readers are privy to the thoughts of one of the Bennets themselves; here is Mary, for example: “the distraction of those silly sisters…If they could but think of higher things, of music, religion, good works, instead of officers.”
For the most part, though, readers are limited to knowing whatever the servants overhear or imply; we leave the Bennet girls at the door of Netherfield ball, for instance. Yet the Bennets’ utter obliviousness to the reality of life for the lower classes is juxtaposed with growing awareness of the brutality of slavery. Even on the second page Baker shows concern for those “people of color” omitted from Austen’s world:
“the sun would be shining on other places still, on the Barbadoes and Antigua and Jamaica where the dark men worked half-naked, and on the Americas where the Indians wore almost no clothes at all.”
Footman James is a committed abolitionist, with a copy of Wilberforce by his bedside, and Baker gives a significant role to a new black character, Ptolemy, the Bingleys’ footman (who turns Sarah’s head).
Longbourn offers more three-dimensional portraits of certain characters: Mrs. Bennet, Mary, Wickham, and Mr. Collins in particular – you get the sense that Baker felt rather sorry for them all and wanted to give them their due. Mr. Darcy, however, is given short shrift (he only speaks on two pages, and his second proposal – the very climax of Pride and Prejudice! – barely earns a mention). Jane and Lizzie are patronizingly fond of Sarah, offering her their books and hand-me-down dresses, but still it is clear that the Bennet girls hardly recognize servants as people. In one excruciating bit of dialogue, Sarah has to prompt Elizabeth’s memory several times before she recalls the very existence of James: “Oh! Smith! You mean the footman!”
Baker expertly mimics Austen’s trademark use of free indirect speech and witticisms. A prime example is when Sarah is sent out in the pouring rain to fetch decorations for the Bennet girls’ dancing shoes (whereas the original text has the anonymous and passive “the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy”). Sarah never has to open her mouth to issue this deliciously snide response: “The ladies could like the shoe-roses or they could lump them. Indeed, she would rather like it if they lumped them. She rather looked forward to their having to lump them.”
The epigraphs heading each chapter come directly from Pride and Prejudice, but I only found one line of word-for-word lifted dialogue in the main text – eagle-eyed Austenites, correct me if I am wrong, and let me know if you spot the same line I picked up on! (If you search the Pride and Prejudice e-book, available for free on Project Gutenberg), you’ll be interested to learn that there are in fact allusions to a Longbourn footman and a serving Sarah, in Chapters 7 and 55, respectively.)
I also heard an echo of Pride and Prejudice’s omniscient opening sentence in the first lines of Baker’s conclusion, which capture perfectly Austen’s note of pseudo-philosophical generalization:
“It is not, perhaps, an entirely happy situation after all, to gain something that has been wanted for long years. The object itself, once achieved, is often found not to be exactly as anticipated. It has perhaps become tired and worn over time; flaws that had been overlooked for years are now all too apparent. One finds one does not know what to do with it at all.”
Where Longbourn diverges most noticeably from Pride and Prejudice is in its unflinching portrayal of the physical reality of early nineteenth-century life: chilblains, scars, lice, reeking chamber pots, animal slaughter, underarm hair, and napkins soaked with menstrual blood. Behind the fine appearances of the Netherfield ball guests, all Sarah can see is “the same old freckles and wrinkles and bad breath and smallpox scars and limping gout…Her envy puffed up into smoke and was gone on the wind.” Even the mighty Bennets, when at the dining table, participate in an animalistic “shoveling and chewing and rolling of food down throats, and the grinding of jaws, and the swilling of tea and coffee…beasts, they are; cows and sheep and pigs.”
A fantastic interlude, flashing back to a soldier’s brutal years of service in the Napoleonic Wars, provides more gritty realism. Yet in amongst those grim portrayals, there are some passages of astonishing beauty. Here are two of my favorites:
“back at home, back when he was a boy. Where now, at Michaelmas, there’d be hips and haws red as blood, and blackberries hanging like lanterns, and the birds making a feast of them”
“A stream of young ladies flowed out of the house and across the paddock; they foamed over a stile, and flurried off like sparrows along the field path and out of sight.” (describing the sight that awaits the Longbourn visitor)
And there’s even a playfully postmodern reference to Baker’s alternative conclusion: “It was not the end, of course; it was just an end […for] nothing could be approached as the crow flies, but must be sidled up on, and swerved away from, with only inching progress made.”
So although Baker takes modest liberties with the story, I don’t think there’s anything here that will upset Austen lovers, while there is plenty that should draw in new fans. Could this be better than the original? Perhaps better is not the right word, but fuller: Baker’s is an utterly convincing and unbiased vision of early nineteenth-century English life, featuring multiple classes and races – and it doesn’t airbrush away unpleasant bodily realities.
I think Longbourn should particularly appeal to those male readers who have previously professed that Austen isn’t their cup of tea: who are too jaded and knowing, or just too darn cool, for this chick stuff. They will find that there is just the right level of earthiness here to root the romantic plot in reality. Kudos to Jo Baker, and bon appétit to all you lucky readers who soon get to encounter her terrific novel for the first time.