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Books

Great read: Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker, Doubleday.
Did the publishers back in 1813 have any inkling of the level of popularity Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice would reach? Possibly not. Yet, 200 years later, that appeal is still palpable, so English author Jo Baker has either done a very smart or a very naive thing with her new novel Longbourn, a retelling of the classic tale from the servant quarters’ viewpoint.
Of course, with the global success of Downton Abbey, there is a certain appetite for upstairs/downstairs period pieces, but Longbourn, the name of the Bennet family’s country estate, is more than that. Inherent in this tale of endless wash days, loveless marriages and secret pasts is a pertinent examination of the class war that would inevitably topple the aristocrats from their lofty heights a century later.
“However much I identified with Elizabeth, I knew that if I’d lived in Austen’s day, I wouldn’t have got to go to the ball,” says Jo Baker about her inspiration for the book.
“My family were in service not so long ago — my grandma and her sisters all worked as maids. Knowing that, it perhaps made me more aware than I otherwise would have been of the servants’ presence in the book [Pride and Prejudice]. The errands that are run, the meals served — it’s rather pragmatic of me, perhaps, but I found myself wondering, who washed Elizabeth’s petticoats when she got them inches deep in mud?”
The story of Sarah, a housemaid whose passion and knuckle-bleeding work ethic put the Bennet sisters’ self-indulgent shenanigans to shame and whose unerring love for new footman James drives her to seemingly reckless abandon, runs in parallel to Elizabeth Bennet’s own famous love affair with the haughty Mr Darcy. Interwoven are a clutch of intriguing sub-plots.
The arrival of black footman Ptolemy in housekeeper Mrs Hill’s kitchen and Sarah’s instant attraction to this exotic creature provides pause for thought, as does the truth of Mrs Hill’s own marriage of convenience, teasingly revealed, and of her unique relationship with the head of the house. And tying the strands together is the arrival of footman James, who is hired with no references and a back story ridden with holes.
Who is this tortured soul? Why does he shy away from the militiamen who call on the ladies of the house? What brutal things have happened to make him so mistrustful? And will he and Sarah ever be together? Although a little plodding at the start, the pace soon picks up with deeply affecting war scenes and a warmth to the central characters that pays definite homage to Jane Austen’s creations.
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