Monday, January 25, 2016

Longbourn by Jo Baker

This book is Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants at the family home, Longbourn.  Unfortunately it has been so many years since I read the original that I cannot confirm or deny the author's assertion that "where the two books overlap, the events of this novel are mapped directly onto Jane Austen's.  When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn.  When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen's novel, the leave the carriage waiting in this one."  That being said, this was still an extremely enjoyable read.

I must first give credit to Baker's writing style.  Based on her vocabulary, syntax and general structure, it would be easy to believe this was written in 1813 rather than 2013.  Though old fashioned, the language flows smoothly making this book easy to read, unlike some historical novels. It is written from the perspective of Sarah, a house maid in the Bennet home.  She came to the home as a young child after she was orphaned when the rest of her family died of typhus.  There she was taken under the wing of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper/cook and her husband, the butler.  The only other staff member at the start of the book is Polly, another orphan who has recently come into the household.

The lives of the staff are thrown into disarray when Mr. Bennet abruptly agrees to hire James as a footman.  Sarah finds it odd that Mr. Bennet and Mr. Hill are so quick to accept the quiet though industrious young man.  As it is the time of the Napoleonic wars when most able bodied men are fighting, she is suspicious of his motives in coming to work for them.  Her suspicions are not helped by the fact that James is immediately attracted to her, but tries to bury that attraction by pointedly ignoring her.

As the book progresses we learn of James' history, and gain some insights into the horrors of the Napoleonic wars.  At the same time we see more of Mrs. Hill's history with Mr. Bennet as well as the nature of her marriage to Mr. Hill.  Throughout this we catch glimpses of the Bennet sisters', as seen from the eyes of their servants - and, in particular, we are witness to the vast disparity in their lives.

Like in Pride and Prejudice, the main couple eventually overcomes their personality differences and ends up together and the novel concludes with a "happily ever after" chapter that updates us on where the characters ended up within a couple of years of the main action.

Though not likely to become a historical masterpiece like the original, I think this book is a worthwhile read and it has prompted me to pick up Pride and Prejudice again.

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