Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice gets the Upstairs Downstairs treatment in this clever new novel about the servants at Longbourn written by Jo Baker. While Austen's novel focused on the Bennet sisters and their particular goings on, Longbourn speculates what was happening downstairs in the servants quarters. Meticulously researched so that the timelines between Pride and Prejudice and Longbourn match, the novel tells the story of Sarah, a young orphan who has worked at Longbourn since the age of six, under the watchful eye of Mrs Hill. A mysterious young man takes up a position as a footman and Sarah finds herself with some very conflicting feelings about him ...
As a diehard fan of Pride and Prejudice I was very concerned about the way that Baker would portray some of my beloved characters. On the whole, she did a brilliant job, however her portrayal of Mr Bennet is, cough, quite surprising. Jane and Elizabeth are as lovely as I expected them to be, Lydia just as naughty, Kitty stays firmly in the background and Mary ... well that particular tangent was as surprising as Mr Bennet's own history. However, as far as the established Pride and Prejudice characters go, it is Baker's portrayal of the caddish Mr Wickham that truly shines. I suspect that Austen herself would wholeheartedly approve of the subplot where Wickham attempts to seduce Polly, a servant girl who is teetering on the edge of pubescence. In this passage, one really gets the sense of who and what Wickham is:
She saw, in their mirrored reflection , how Mr Wickham his arms wrapped around his sixteen-year-old wife, smiled over her head at Polly, and how Polly scrambled to her feet and curtseyed and stared, smiling, bare-faced and innocent, back at him.
Prick. Seriously though, Baker's portrayal of Wickham is impressive, as was how she weaved in the contrast between the lives of the gentry and the servants in Georgian England. I felt that the novel did wrap up a bit too soon though--I would have liked to have read more about the reunion between Sarah and James, who were, after all, the real heroine and hero of this story.
Better that many of the Pride and Prejudice fan fictions out there, Longbourn is definitely one of the fans.