What do you get when you mix “Downton Abbey” and Pride and Prejudice? The answer comes in the form of British novelist Jo Baker’s newest offering, Longbourn, which, perhaps not surprisingly, has already been optioned for film.
Spinoffs and sequels to Pride and Prejudice are a dime a dozen, so it takes something quite extraordinary to make readers take note. In 2011, suspense sovereign P.D. James managed it by adding a murder mystery into the mix. Baker’s tack is slightly less gruesome, though perhaps no less grim: Working within the framework of Austen’s novel, Longbourn shifts focus and brings those who toil behind the scenes—the household servants—to the forefront.
But this is not a straight retread. Baker does not attempt to emulate Austen’s writing style, and her story fits in the novel’s framework while being completely original. Lizzie, Jane and Lydia (along with many other characters readers know and love) still pop up, but Longbourn is primarily the story of housemaid Sarah, who toils endlessly for the comfort and care of others. Her days are filled with tasks that make her stomach curdle and her joints ache, and though Sarah dreams of one day having something—or someone—to make her life feel full, she fears that all her future holds is the bleak emptiness of servitude. Enter an intriguing, but infuriatingly taciturn, new footman, and suddenly Sarah is left wondering if happiness might be within her grasp.
Like the novel that inspired it, Longbourn is a love story, but it is also more than that. Ruthlessly unromantic at times, Baker burrows through the froth and frivolity of upper-class life and grounds her characters in harsh realities, allowing for a powerful exploration of the prevailing social issues of the time as faced by the lower classes. Sarah suffers from chilblains, doesn’t get enough sleep and deals with chamber pots on top of it all. Though this gritty realism may turn off some readers, it elevates the book and sets it apart from its source material. Following in Austen’s footsteps is no small feat, but it is one Baker accomplishes with aplomb. Both Austen devotees and readers unfamiliar with the original will find that Longbourn is a robust, compelling novel that easily stands on its own.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Jo Baker for Longbourn.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
In centuries past, servants were barely seen or heard, but then came Upstairs Downstairs. Here, Baker visits one downstairs that will intrigue many readers--that of the Bennet household in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. British author Baker's second novel to appear here, after the much-praised The Undertow.[Page 54]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Avid Jane Austen readers know Longbourn as the family home of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, where five unmarried daughters in search of husbands with fortunes and their put-upon parents reside. This, however, is not their story. The novel takes place beneath the staircase, where the servants prepare the meals, wait tables, scrub mud off boots and petticoats, drive the carriages, and otherwise cater to the daily demands of the household. While the drama of husband-hunting takes place largely offstage and the family goes about its familiar social engagements with the Bingleys, the Darcys, the insufferable Mr. Collins, and the mendacious Wickham, the real drama unfolds when the enigmatic James Smith arrives as a footman and catches the eye of Sarah, the young housemaid with dreams of a world beyond Longbourn. VERDICT British author Baker's second novel after her much lauded The Undertow is densely plotted and achingly romantic. This exquisitely reimagined Pride and Prejudice will appeal to Austen devotees and to anyone who finds the goings-on below the stairs to be at least as compelling as the ones above. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/8/13.]--Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont.[Page 86]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
The servants of the Bennett estate manage their own set of dramas in this vivid re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. While the marriage prospects of the Bennett girls preoccupy the family upstairs, downstairs the housekeeper Mrs. Hill has her hands full managing the staff that keeps Longbourn running smoothly: the young housemaids, Sarah and Polly; the butler, Mr. Hill; and the mysterious new footman, James Smith, who bears a secret connection to Longbourn. At the heart of the novel is a budding romance between James and orphan-turned-housemaid Sarah, whose dutiful service belies a "ferocious need for notice, an insistence that she fully be taken into account." When an expected turn of events separates the young lovers, Sarah must contend with James's complicated past and the never-ending demands of the Bennetts. Baker (The Mermaid's Child) offers deeper insight into Austen's minor characters, painting Mr. Collins in a more sympathetic light while making the fiendish Mr. Wickham even more sinister. The Militia, which only offered opportunities for flirtations in the original, here serves as a reminder of the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars. Baker takes many surprising risks in developing the relationships between the servants and the Bennetts, but the end result steers clear of gimmick and flourishes as a respectful and moving retelling. A must-read for fans of Austen, this literary tribute also stands on its own as a captivating love story. First printing of 150,000. Agent: Clare Alexander, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Oct.)[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC