REVIEW: LONGBOURN BY JO BAKER

LONGBOURN

Author: Jo Baker
Doubleday RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan 

I admit to being a little ambivalent about fan-fiction – earlier this year I read Jane Eyre Laid Bare and didn’t enjoy it – so I approached Longbourn, a Pride and Prejudice fanfic, with mixed feelings; the Downton Abbey part of me wanted to hear the servants’ stories and part of me worried that I would disagree with the authors’ interpretations of well-loved characters as I did with Jane Eyre Laid Bare. I needn’t have worried. Like a fire slowly talking hold, Longbourn drew me in; it did take a little to connect with it, but all of a sudden, my interest ignited, and I couldn’t put the book down.

In Georgian England, a team of servants (big or small) would have been required to work tirelessly to keep estates running smoothly. While the Bennet household is not wealthy (and entailed to Mr Bennet’s cousin Mr Collins since the Bennets have no male heirs), they are still able to keep five servants – Mr and Mrs Hill (butler and housekeeper), James (footman), Sarah (housemaid/lady’s maid) and Polly (maid/scullery maid). Of these servants, Mrs Hill is the only one mentioned in Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceLongbourn is the servants’ story.

Below the stairs in the Bennet house means long days for the servants. Looking after the Bennets and their five daughters is no small task and author Jo Baker sheds plenty of light on the day-to-day details in all their ordinariness. The reader sees how the servants feel about Elizabeth’s tendency to “trudge through muddy fields”, the washing of monthly rags for all the females in the household, preparing dinner and rooms for unexpected guests with little or no forewarning, and staying up late to tuck the young ladies in after late-night balls. Never mind that their hands are chapped and bleeding or they’re about to fall asleep from exhaustion after another late night.

But this is not just a big whine about domestic duties (though there is plenty of that). It’s also the story of servants trying to forge lives for themselves within the restraints of their class, money and the expectations of their “betters”. The first part of the book focuses heavily on Sarah, a young housemaid who finds herself attracted to Ptolemy, Mr Bingley’s charming footman, as well as James, the Bennet’s new but enigmatic footman. It’s nice not to feel invisible, to feel desired by someone, she realises; why can’t she experience romance in her life, as she sees the Bennet girls doing? As she goes about her daily duties, she ponders the choices available to her: leaving the protection of service life and making her own way carries a big risk, but remaining a servant means working to give others a work-free life.

As the story progresses, Mrs Hill’s viewpoint becomes more prominent – she has enough to worry about, including impressing Mr Collins, who is likely to become her future master. There’s also an interesting twist involving Mr Bennet and James that keeps Mrs Hill awake at night. Her perspective on what might have been were class a non-issue is poignant. Unlike Downton Abbey servants, the Longbourn staff look out for each other; James stepping in when Polly receives a little too much attention from Mr Wickham (even less likeable in this version) and Mrs Hill warning Ptolemy off Sarah are just two examples of the way the staff pull together. They need to. If they fall apart, so too will the Bennet household.

While romance is a key element in Longbourn, this is not a romanticised re-telling of the classic. For better and worse, the Bennets come across rather differently in this version – especially Mr Bennet (who I found long-suffering and passively sarcastic in Austen’s telling) and Elizabeth (who seems rather more selfish in this version). What I liked is that Baker builds on the characters we know, without straying too far from Austen’s creations and alienating the reader (although some readers may disagree). I didn’t doubt the way they were depicted – for the most part, the fleshed-out characters were plausible. In addition, the story highlights social and class issues of the time (which Pride and Prejudice did from a different viewpoint), showing that life for many was far different to that of the Bennets and their peers.  Longbourn is also not written Austen-style; Baker uses modern language (including swear words and sexual references) to impart a fresh imagining.

I did find the ending a bit rushed (albeit sweet) and sometimes (especially early on) it was distracting when viewpoints changed suddenly, but overall, I found Longbourn a fascinating read. It’s well-written, clever, entertaining and refreshing (one scene melted my heart a bit) and I think the hype the novel’s already getting is well-deserved. Fans of Austen may have mixed reactions to the events and characterisation, but even if they do, that means the book is generating discussion and leading readers back to the classic, so it’s not a bad outcome either way. My verdict overall: read it!

Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. My copy was courtesy of Random House and NetGalley.

For those interested in who fits where, above and below the stairs, here’s a clever little character map to help connect the dots:

Longbourn_CharacterMap