Thursday, July 24, 2014


Longbourn I have said before that I'm a sucker for Jane Austen adaptations. Almost inevitably, I'm disappointed by them, but that doesn't stop me from trying. Jo Baker's Longborne--the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants--succeeds where so many others fail. I saw this novel first pitched as a kind of Downton Abbey meets Austen, and had to read it. I'm so glad I did. The historical research was impressive, the characters sympathetic, and I loved the feeling of having my brain a little twisted by seeing a story I very much adore from a different perspective.

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Sarah, the young woman who serves as one of the two maids in the Bennet household. Sometimes the POV switches to Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper-cook, or James, the newly hired footman with a hidden past. But Baker's writing is so lovely that even when POV shifts occurred mid-scene, I rarely noticed them.

It's true that the Bennets don't come across smelling like roses in this version--but that's entirely the point. What looks lovely and neat and airy in Austen films required a small army of servants to upkeep--and when small households like the Bennets are involved, this inevitably means drudgery for someone.

For instance, early on Baker writes (from Sarah's POV):

The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statutes underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were.

Nothing like washing someone's underwear to take away the magic in a relationship!

And again, referring to preparations for a ball:

It meant a flurry of excited giggly activity above stairs; it meant outings, entertainments, and a barrowload of extra work for everyone below.

Elizabeth's charming resolve to walk to Netherfield after a rainstorm to see Jane becomes:

Such self-sufficiency was to be valued in a person, but seeing her set off down the track, and then climb the stile, Sarah could not help but think that those stockings would e perfectly ruined, and that petticoat would never be the same again.

In the same way, it's impossible to read this without looking at the characters from Pride and Prejudice in the same way, but this did not diminish my enjoyment of this book (or of Pride and Prejudice).

Aside from the plot, which was by turns serious and romantic, there's pleasure just in Baker's lovely writing.

For Elizabeth the days had scudded by, but for Sarah they had expanded and swelled and grown beyond all possibility, so that every crease and dimple in them, the scent and silk and warmth of her hours, now absorbed her senses so completely that she was dazed by the world, soaked in it, more alive than she had ever been before.

Or this:

This doggedness, this bloody-mindedness: it charmed him in a way that he could not quite fathom. . . .
She was tougher than she knew. She wanted nothing from him. She brushed him aside like a fly. He found this quite delightful.

For readers looking for a familiar variation on Pride and Prejudice, this is not their book. But for fans of the novel and the time period looking for a new perspective, this was altogether lovely.

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