Jane Austen lovers are in for quite a treat. Oh wait, make that Jane Austen lovers and Downton Abbey fans. Oh yes, buy multiple copies because Longbourn has arrived at last.
Imagine that among the Bennet family servants there is one just about the same age as Elizabeth. Sarah is a hard worker, solid and dependable. She’s just starting to be interested in having a life of her own, beyond the walls of Longbourn where she’s served since the age of 7. Then, great news! Netherfield has been let by an eligible young bachelor. Not only does this mean possibilities for the Bennet daughters. This also means that the very handsome Ptolemy Bingley (named after his master) begins delivering invitations and other bits of mail to Longbourn. And he finds Sarah quite charming.
Around the same time James, a new servant, comes to Longbourn. This is rather mysterious since good, strong men are nearly impossible to find during this time, so many having been lost to the wars. And just like that, Sarah finds herself at the center of what might be considered a love triangle. And her with no experience whatsoever with men. Up to now it’s been all about getting the day’s work done. Speaking of which, Jo Baker’s research into just what that work entailed, and how the servants might have felt about it, is fascinating.
Baker has put together a most enchanting romance, based on a story well known by most teens. Some will have read the novel in English class, others know it through film versions, still others via The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
This is no mere imitation. Baker makes readers think about where the Bingley fortune might have originated (from the slave trade and sugar plantations triangle of England, Africa and the Caribbean), whether Lizzie would actually be happy fulfilling her duties as the wife of a wealthy and important man, and the cost of the Napoleonic wars on England’s most vulnerable citizens. New insights into Mary Bennet, Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham (more despicable than ever here), and Mr. Bennet ring true.
There are a few missteps. Sarah’s sexual awakening reads strangely like a Harlequin romance. An over-long section looks back at James’s time on the battlefield, and a connection between Mrs. Hill and James seems too convenient. Still, the good here is so very good that it more than merits a starred review.
* BAKER, Jo. Longbourn. 352p. Knopf. Oct. 2013. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780385351232; ebook ISBN 9780385351249.
Adult/High School–Longbourn reimagines Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the servant’s point of view. Sarah was seven, orphaned and living in the poorhouse when she was taken in by Mrs. Hill to live and work at Longbourn. Now about the same age as Elizabeth Bennet, she spends her days doing laundry, cleaning, helping with meals, mending clothes, even emptying chamberpots. She suffers from chilblains and blisters, and sleeps in a tiny attic room. Sarah appreciates having a position, but wishes for a life of her own. Then two men enter the picture. James, the new footman, is quiet, hardworking, and keeps to himself. He falls in love with Sarah pretty much at first sight. Ptolemy Bingley, a fashionable “mulatto servant,” arrives at Netherfield along with his master and immediately begins wooing Sarah. She is drawn to James, but after a sweet period of sexual awakening, his past interferes. Events and characters of the original novel are the scaffolding for this one. The arrival of Mr. Collins throws the servants into as much of a tizzy as it does the Bennets. Wickham shows his spots to the servants much earlier than he does to the family. And Elizabeth takes Sarah along when she travels to visit Charlotte and Mr. Collins, giving readers a peek at early 19th-century England through Sarah’s eyes. The final third of the book includes a special treat for those who enjoy imagining what married life might have been like for Elizabeth at Pemberley. Baker’s careful research and easy prose make this novel a pure joy for fans of PBS’s Downton Abbey and the many avid readers of Austen’s work.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City