As a rule, I recoil at the suggestion of reading Jane Austen fan fiction, sequels, variations or any other shade of sexed-up increments. As far as I am concerned, the original is always the best. So, I am not quite sure, how I found myself reading, nay, loving Jo Baker’s Pride and Prejudice inspired novel, Longbourn. But I did, and I am not sorry. It was excellent.
Longbourn is the imagined story of the servants of Longbourn – known to literature as the home of the Bennett family in P&P. The story takes place simultaneously with its better known upstairs incarnation, and in fact, continues for a short period after the P&P narrative ends. It takes for its heroes therefore, figures who are hardly more than shadows in the Austen original. Some with names, and some without, in P&P they are scurrying figures who deliver letters and assemble hairstyles. Jo Baker names them, gives them stories and loves and loses and makes them the heart of her narrative. In doing so, she shines a light on the parallel universe of back breaking toil that enabled the clink of tea cups in the regency drawing room.
The main characters from P&P are of course present, some far more present than others. However they are mostly off-stage. This is not a book about Lizzy and Mr Darcy as glimpsed from the servant’s hall. It is about the servants. Reading on my kindle, I rejoiced that Mr Darcy is not even mentioned until nearly 40% of the way through the book. I have always thought that he was over-exposed anyway. Of course, for those who know P&P very well, there is the gratification of knowing exactly where the “Longbourn” story is in the upstairs story line. Baker is also clever in the subtly different ways that she presents Austen’s main characters. She doesn’t radically change any of them, but she does reduce the romance of them.
Jo Baker’s work is more, not less successful because she has attempted something that Jane Austen would never have done. Austen’s work has become synonymous with the so-called 2 inches of ivory; the perfectly rendered account of a small landscape, with no deviations beyond. She would never have attempted to write an account of washing day, let alone the broader vistas of slavery and exploitation which underpinned the comfort of her world, because she knew nothing of them. Jo Baker steps into the space left open by Austen’s approach and is remarkably compelling.
Her writing is beautiful, and her characters are bold and real. The narrative focuses on the interlinking stories of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, James the footman and Sarah the maid. To the extent that Longbourn has a Lizzy below stairs, it is Sarah although I must say that it was the development of Mrs Hill that most touched me. In P&P Hill is often present in fleeting shadow form (and for those who have seen it, who could forget Alison Steadman’s Mrs Bennett constant screaming refrain “HILL”…). In Longbourn she is a complete person, brave, loving, intelligent and cruelly used by life.
Pictures are of the book, the author and the Longbourn of the 1995 series. Happy reading all.