Thursday, 31 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 152: "Longbourn" by Jo Baker

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Quick question - can you give me the name of a single servant in Pride and Prejudice? Despite having read the book multiple times and having just finished the audio version of the book, I certainly couldn't do it. Jo Baker has taken the classic novel and imagined what the lives of the invisible people behind the scenes, so to speak. The very essential people who wash the mud out of Lizzie's petticoats after she's been walking the countryside, who help the Bennett sisters do their hair, make the beds, empty the chamber pots, sweep the floors, cook the food, tend the horses, open the doors, run errands no matter the state of the weather, carry messages back and forth and make life so much easier for the main cast of Pride and Prejudice.

There's the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill; her husband, the butler; the maids Sarah and Mary (who because the middle daughter of the family is also a Mary is forever called Polly instead). There's also the mysterious and newly hired footman, James. Their lives' work is to make things as comfortable and effortless for the family they serve, but they have hopes and dreams and pasts of their own. Sarah, orphaned at an early age and taken into the household after a stay in the poor house, especially dreams of travelling and seeing the country, not content to be a servant her entire life. She's suspicious of James, the ruffian who showed up from nowhere and was suddenly hired on as a footman. All the other servants seem to adore him, and Mrs. Hill dotes on him, but Sarah's sure he's lying about his past and is determined to figure out what he's hiding. Both James and Mrs. Hill are concerned when Sarah seems to form an attachment with one of Mr. Bingley's handsome and exotically dark-skinned footmen.

The servants, like everyone else, hope the elder Bennett sisters will make good matches, and worry when Lizzie spurns Mr. Collins, who after all will be their new master at some point in the future. They all think it would have been easier if he married a Bennett daughter, but can see he should have set his sights on Miss Mary, who was a much more suitable match for him.

While the Bennett women and all their acquaintances seem charmed by the dashing Mr. Wickham, the servants are not so easily fooled by his looks and easy charm. They recognise a predator when they see one and when he shows a very worrying interest in little Polly, James forgets all his hard-earned instincts to keep his head down and steps in to protect her. Wickham shows just how dangerous he can be and causes great upheaval in the household. Both Sarah and Mrs. Hill are shattered by the aftermath.

The book is divided into three parts, and the third part is the one that's the most removed from the main plot of the source novel. In this part we discover more of Mrs. Hill's past, her connection to James the footman and why he wished to keep his past hidden from everyone. It offered a perspective on the Regency period you certainly don't see in the romance novels, not just because it concerns the lives of the working classes, but because it's easy to forget when reading about balls and dresses and courting that the Napoleonic wars were also raging at the time. While so many romances are populated by officers back AFTER the Napoleonic wars, with varying degrees of PTSD, they rarely show any of the realities of the actual fighting, and certainly not what it would have been like for the foot soldiers. Longbourn, however, doesn't shy away from such unpleasantness.

This book is a very interesting take on what I think of as "literary fan fiction". I really liked the different interpretations of the already known characters from the beloved novel, as well as a fascinating look at all those servants who get completely forgotten about, but were oh so necessary for the wheels of society to turn. At first, I was worried I'd find the book boring, but I pretty much raced through it, just as invested in the lower born protagonists that I was reading about Lizzie and her sisters finding love.

I'm not entirely sure I liked some of the choices Baker made in the book, however, and wish that Mrs. Hill's past could have been handled differently. I did like that Baker continued the story past the pages of the original, with glimpses of Lizzie's life as Mrs. Darcy and showed what life might be like for a maid at Pemberley. I can't really fault Sarah for the choices she eventually made, although I doubt I would have chosen the same if I were in her situation. There have been several very favourable Cannonball reviews of this in the past, I'm glad I finally got round to reading it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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