Longbourn is one of those books that pulls you in, little by little, until you are truly captivated by its storytelling. Once you reach the final pages you are sad to say goodbye to the characters whose lives you have followed but, unlike many stories where there is a gaping void left by the ending, the finish here is satisfying and natural.
This is the story of the servants of the Bennet household, the ones who move silently through the pages of Pride and Prejudice, unseen but for the few glimpses that Austen gave us in her novel. As the story unfurls we meet Mr and Mrs Hill, the butler and housekeeper, and the maids Polly and Sarah. We are thrown into the lives of servants during the Regency era, a time when war threatened and officers dressed in red turned the heads of the young ladies.
Jo Baker doesn’t glamorise life at the turn of the C19th, instead she brings us the lives of ordinary people in service. We brush shoulders with Mr & Mrs Bennet and their girls, but through the eyes of Sarah the housemaid… who runs their errands, sees to their washing and helps keep the household running in a way befitting the minor gentry of the time.
This is a clever book, Jo Baker takes us through the story written by Austen, but with the emphasis on the servants… the story runs parallel with that of Elizabeth Bennet. While Elizabeth’s romance is bound together with her sister Jane’s love for Bingley and Lydia’s elopement with the dastardly Wickham, downstairs Sarah’s life is opened to romance and intrigue to rival that of her employers.
I won’t tell you the story, I will leave you to find that out for yourself, but what I will say is that having read the book you will never read (or watch) Pride and Prejudice in quite the same way again. Where P.D. James extended the story with the excellent Death at Pemberley, Longbourn adds another dimension to one of the best loved novels ever written. It was a bold move, to write such a book and get it wrong would have been all too easy… but Baker got it right. So right in fact that the book will now sit on my bookshelf nestled next to Austen’s original.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is available in hardback from Doubleday in August 2013