Published: 2013 by Random House Australia
Read: August 2013
Trivia Tidbit: Jo Baker has said family history served as inspiration for the book: "If I’d been living at the time, I wouldn’t have got to go to the ball, I would’ve been stuck at home, with the sewing. Just a few generations back, my family were in service."
Full Disclosure: Advance Reading Copy from the publisher via Netgalley
Firstly, let me acknowledge my bias - I am a huge Austen fan. I have loved the Bennet girls for the longest time (Lydia excepted), and have tried a number of adaptations and derivative works in an attempt to extend the magic. Among others, I've tried Pemberley: Or Pride and Prejudice Continued by Emma Tennant, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough and Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. While interesting to see how the authors reinterpreted the events and relationships of the original, none of these have come close to recapturing the magic Jane Austen created with her most famous novel.
And then there is Longbourn. I think Longbourn succeeds where others have failed because it does not, for the most part, impose itself on the relationships and interactions that take place in Pride and Prejudice. The novel takes place 'below stairs'. The major characters in Longbourn are peripheral in Pride and Prejudice and Jo Baker has fleshed out the characters of the servants based on scraps offered by Austen throughout Pride and Prejudice. Jo said "I noticed these little flickers of activity beneath the surface, and was intrigued."
From these "flickers of activity" grew the fully-fledged characters of the Longbourn staff: housekeeper Mrs Margaret Hill keeps a watchful eye over butler (and husband) Mr Hill, servants Sarah and Polly, and new footman James Smith. Very little happens at Longbourn without Mrs Hill's knowledge and involvement.
To help readers keep track of what is happening upstairs (i.e. in the Pride and Prejudice plot) each chapter begins with a sentence from the original. This is a great device which reminds the reader of the intelligence and wit of Austen's prose and gives context to the hustle and bustle in the kitchen or the stables or the run into Meryton in the rain to fetch shoe roses for the ball. Interactions with the main Pride and Prejudice characters are generally limited to what one would expect - curling hair, cooking meals, preparing a room for Mr Collins or delivering letters. The worries of the household staff are worlds away from the worries of their employers - Mr Collins is a potential new employer to be impressed, there is night water to be disposed, soap to be made and muddy hems to be scrubbed clean ("if Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields"). The interaction between George Wickham and the household staff was the most interesting by far. The son of Mr Darcy Snr's steward, Wickham seems more comfortable below stairs, but his presence is barely tolerated by Mrs Hill who is keenly attuned to the danger he poses.
While the story of Longbourn is as intricately linked to Pride and Prejudice as the servants are to their household, this is the servants' story. The events of Pride and Prejudice are not changed or retold. They are expanded upon by and are complementary to the story of the lives of those who work at Longbourn. It is only when the author attempts to tweak some of the relationships in Austen's version that the story suffers. On the whole, however, this is an enjoyable read and the best novel derived from the people and events of Pride and Prejudice that I have read to date.