Longbourn by Jo Baker
RATING: ★★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice, sprinkled with anachronistic zombies or robots or aliens, seem to flood the shelves these days. Occasionally I indulge in one of the TV adaptations of these cash-cows, but I’ve never considered reading the original material. I looked at Longbourn skeptically, fearing it might be another one of those churned out dramas, distilling all the spectacle and romance of the original with little of the substance. Happily, this was not the case at all!
Longbourn burns brightly as its own, singular piece of literature. Jo Baker takes on the task of disillusioning readers, taking each beloved P & P character and gently pointing out their faults (other than the comical ones developed by Austen), their ignorances due to their class and breeding, their willingness to view the world in a certain light, while providing interesting and complex backstory as to how these characteristics developed.
Through a third-person subjective narrative, Jo Baker examines the emotions and motivations of the servantry at Longbourn and the other great houses in sensitive detail. I was continually impressed by her ability to give characters a scope of thought familiar to our 21-st century expectations–ponderings about the future, about the worth of our day-to-day work, about the purpose or necessity of love, about the very reality of a larger world–without seeming unrealistic. Today there are conventional ideas of what nineteenth century England looked like, many of which are glossy, homogenized, and simply inaccurate–partially due to the popularization of certain comic romances of the day that offer only an upper-middle class perspectives. Jo Baker widens this world beautifully; we are introduced to characters who are aware of, and think deeply about, the realities of war and poverty, slavery and the functions of trade and commerce, sex and childbirth and the sometimes frightening consequences, among myriad other things. Sarah, the housemaid, and Mrs. Hill, the cook, have knowledge, have heard stories and know the geography of the world outside the village; they pragmatically know they cannot see all of it or visit it, but they still think about it. Baker rejects the idea that, just because people of working classes are ensconced in the labor of the everyday (she does not shy away from descriptions of blood, shit, and piss) they can make no room for intelligent thought.
Baker’s prose as she describes these stark daily realities and characters’ memories and examinations of the past is beautiful. I’m a sucker for lush descriptions of landscape and natural detail, and Longbourn is rife with winding sentences illustrating the call of a curlew or the scent of blackberries. My one peeve was her overuse of the word ‘waft’ (everyone is wafting their hands to signify something).
If you are interested in the regency era, the realistic consequences of the Napoleonic wars, and don’t mind a bit of angsty romance and meandering prose, this is a truly wonderful read.