The New York Times Book Review - Diane Johnson
…an affecting look at the world of Pride and Prejudice, but from another point of viewthe servants' hall, where other lives are simultaneously lived, with very different concerns and dramas…Longbourn is delightfully audacious…Baker shares some of [Charlotte] Brontë's qualitiesa power of description, a feeling for the natural world, a regard for emotional turbulenceand she shows a comfort with the past that allows her to imagine it in a vivid way…With large imaginative sympathy and a detailed knowledge of early-19th-century housekeeping, Baker gives us a sobering look at the undersideor the practical sideof daily life circa 1812…in a bourgeois household…[Longbourn's] both original and charming…
The servants of the Bennett estate manage their own set of dramas in this vivid re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. While the marriage prospects of the Bennett girls preoccupy the family upstairs, downstairs the housekeeper Mrs. Hill has her hands full managing the staff that keeps Longbourn running smoothly: the young housemaids, Sarah and Polly; the butler, Mr. Hill; and the mysterious new footman, James Smith, who bears a secret connection to Longbourn. At the heart of the novel is a budding romance between James and orphan-turned-housemaid Sarah, whose dutiful service belies a “ferocious need for notice, an insistence that she fully be taken into account.” When an expected turn of events separates the young lovers, Sarah must contend with James’s complicated past and the never-ending demands of the Bennetts. Baker (The Mermaid’s Child) offers deeper insight into Austen’s minor characters, painting Mr. Collins in a more sympathetic light while making the fiendish Mr. Wickham even more sinister. The Militia, which only offered opportunities for flirtations in the original, here serves as a reminder of the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars. Baker takes many surprising risks in developing the relationships between the servants and the Bennetts, but the end result steers clear of gimmick and flourishes as a respectful and moving retelling. A must-read for fans of Austen, this literary tribute also stands on its own as a captivating love story. First printing of 150,000. Agent: Clare Alexander, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
A Best Book of the Year Selection: New York Times 100 Notable, Seattle Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Kirkus Reviews
“Masterful . . . From the same stream that fed Austen’s literary imagination, Baker has drawn forth something entirely new and fresh.” —Miami Herald
“Happily, Longbourn is no mere riff but a fully imagined rejoinder to Price and Prejudice . . . Austen would have appreciated Baker’s bracing rewrite from the underdog’s point of view.” —Newsday
“If you are a Jane Austen fan with a pronounced predilection for Pride and Prejudice, you will devour Jo Baker’s ingenious Longbourn as the ambrosia from the Austen gods it is . . . It’s an idea that could have felt derivative or sycophantic in its execution, and yet the novel is rich, engrossing, and filled with fascinating observation . . . Dive in and you might even forget to watch Downton Abbey.” —O magazine
“Intelligent and elegantly written . . . Longbourn reveals these messy backdrops [of Pride and Prejudice] while still, in fitting tribute, inventing a touching love story of its own.” —Wall Street Journal
“An absorbing and moving story about the servants at Longbourn . . . Both original and charming, even gripping . . . If Charlotte Brontë had taken up the challenge of a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, she might very well have hit upon the sort of broader, more sympathetic point of view Jo Baker has derived from the servants’ quarters.” —Diane Johnson, New York Times Book Review
“Longbourn is a bold novel, subversive in ways that prove surprising, and brilliant on every level. This is a masterful twist on a classic . . . Much more than a frothy, Downton Abbey-like twist on Austen. This novel is moving, filled with suspense, and impressive for the sympathy with which it explores the drudgery of the servants’ lives, as well as their heartaches. That said, there’s plenty of Austen-worthy wit too.” —USA Today
“Delightful . . . The achievement of Baker’s reworking is that Sarah is no mere foil for Elizabeth Bennet; her notions of individual agency and the pursuit of happiness push more forcefully against the class and social strictures of her time than any character in Austen’s novel. The result is a heroine whom it’s impossible not to root for.” —The New Yorker
“A witty, richly detailed re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice . . . Fans of Austen and Downton Abbey will take particular pleasure in Longbourn, but any reader with a taste for well-researched historical fiction will delight in Baker’s involving, informative tale.” —People
“A triumph: a splendid tribute to Austen’s original but, more importantly, a joy in its own right . . . Like Austen, Baker has written an intoxicating love story but, also like Austen, the pleasure of her novel lies in its wit and fierce intelligence . . . Baker not only creates a richly imagined story of her own but recasts Austen’s novel in a startlingly fresh light . . . Inspired.” —The Guardian
“Diehards who love Jane Austen and Downton Abbey will fan their corseted bosoms while tearing through this novel.” —Entertainment Weekly
“The servants have complicated, messy, interesting lives that are every bit as compelling as the Bennet girls’ quest for husbands.” —NPR “Weekend Edition”
“Irresistible . . . Sequels and prequels rarely add to the original, but Baker’s simple yet inspired reimagining does. It has best-seller stamped all over it.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Longbourn is a really special book, and not only because its author writes like an angel. Its real achievement is to circumnavigate the world of Austen knock-offs and return, like Francis Drake, with a hold full of treasure . . . There are some wildly sad and romantic moments; I was sobbing by the end . . . A beautiful book.” —Daily Mail (UK)
“Longbourn is told with glee and great wit, and will delight diehard Austen fans.” —The Daily Beast
“Inspired . . . This is a genuinely fresh perspective on the tale of the Bennet household . . . A lot of fun.” —Sunday Times (UK)
“An especially appealing, and timely, reworking of the classic . . . Much as Jean Rhys’s reimagining of Jane Eyre through a postcolonial perspective became popular in the late nineteen-sixties, when Wide Sargasso Sea was published, so is Baker’s class-conscious reconsideration of Pride and Prejudice representative of our own time.” —NewYorker.com
“Beautifully realized . . . [The characters below stairs] are every bit as absorbing as Lizzy, Wickham, and Darcy.” —The National
“A splendid page-turner . . . The much-loved Pride and Prejudice is shaken up and given the grit that Jane Austen could never include—with great success . . . Baker’s imaginative leaps are stunningly well done, both historically and emotionally.” —Evening Standard (UK)
“A must-read for fans of Austen, this literary tribute also stands on its own as a captivating love story . . . Baker takes many surprising risks in developing the relationships between the servants and the Bennets, but the end result steers clear of gimmick and flourishes as a respectful and moving retelling.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Captivating . . . A brilliantly imagined and lovingly told story about the wide world beyond the margins and outside the parlors of Pride and Prejudice.” —Maggie Shipstead, author of Seating Arrangements
“Impressive . . . Baker takes ownership of this world without mimicking Austen’s style, asserting instead her own distinctive, authentic voice. Longbourn is not just nicely packaged fan fiction, or an Austenian Downton Abbey; it’s an engrossing tale we neither know nor expect.” —Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Achingly romantic . . . This exquisitely reimagined Pride and Prejudice will appeal to Austen devotees and to anyone who finds the goings-on below the stairs to be at least as compelling as the ones above. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred)
“If Longbourn is received as a delicious concoction of Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, then, for commercial reasons, no one will feel sorry for Jo Baker, but for artistic ones, she will have been treated unfairly. Baker is a real and very fine writer, and Longbourn stands on its own as an engrossing, intelligent historical novel. At the same time, its resonances with Pride and Prejudice go much farther than its brilliantly plausible presentation of downstairs life: critics have long striven to prove that the great issues of Austen's time—slavery, war, enclosures—impinged on her work; Baker shows us the fermentation below the froth.” —James Collins, author of Beginner’s Greek
“This clever glimpse of Austen’s universe through a window clouded by washday steam is so compelling it leaves you wanting to read the next chapter in the lives below stairs rather than peer at the reflections of any grand party in the mirrors of Netherfield.” —Daily Express (UK)
An irresistible retake on Pride and Prejudice alters the familiar perspective by foregrounding a different version of events--the servants'. Daring to reconfigure what many would regard as literary perfection, Baker (The Undertow, 2012, etc.) comes at Jane Austen's most celebrated novel from below stairs, offering a working-class view of the Bennet family of Longbourn House. While the familiar drama of Lizzie and Jane, Bingley and Darcy goes on in other, finer rooms, Baker's focus is the kitchen and the stable and the harsh cycle of labor that keeps the household functioning. Cook Mrs. Hill rules the roost, and maids Sarah and Polly do much of the hard work, their interminable roster of chores diminished a little by the hiring of a manservant, James Smith. Sarah is attracted to James, but he is mysterious and withdrawn, and soon, her eye is caught by another--Bingley's black footman, Ptolemy. James, though trapped in his secrets, has noticed Sarah too and steps in when she is on the verge of making an impulsive mistake. And so, the romance begins. Baker is at her best when touching on the minutiae of work, of interaction, of rural life. James' back story, though capably done, offers less magic. But a last episode, moving through grief and silence into understated romantic restoration, showcases a softly piercing insight. Sequels and prequels rarely add to the original, but Baker's simple yet inspired reimagining does. It has best-seller stamped all over it.
Avid Jane Austen readers know Longbourn as the family home of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, where five unmarried daughters in search of husbands with fortunes and their put-upon parents reside. This, however, is not their story. The novel takes place beneath the staircase, where the servants prepare the meals, wait tables, scrub mud off boots and petticoats, drive the carriages, and otherwise cater to the daily demands of the household. While the drama of husband-hunting takes place largely offstage and the family goes about its familiar social engagements with the Bingleys, the Darcys, the insufferable Mr. Collins, and the mendacious Wickham, the real drama unfolds when the enigmatic James Smith arrives as a footman and catches the eye of Sarah, the young housemaid with dreams of a world beyond Longbourn. VERDICT British author Baker's second novel after her much lauded The Undertow is densely plotted and achingly romantic. This exquisitely reimagined Pride and Prejudice will appeal to Austen devotees and to anyone who finds the goings-on below the stairs to be at least as compelling as the ones above. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/8/13.]—Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont.
Read an Excerpt
‘Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.’
They were lucky to get him. That was what Mr B. said, as he folded his newspaper and set it aside. What with the War in Spain, and the press of so many able fellows into the Navy; there was, simply put, a dearth of men.
A dearth of men? Lydia repeated the phrase, anxiously searching her sisters’ faces: was this indeed the case? Was England running out of men?
Her father raised his eyes to heaven; Sarah, meanwhile, made big astonished eyes at Mrs Hill: a new servant joining the household! A manservant! Why hadn’t she mentioned it before? Mrs Hill, clutching the coffee pot to her bosom, made big eyes back, and shook her head: shhh! I don’t know, and don’t you dare ask! So Sarah just gave half a nod, clamped her lips shut, and returned her attention to the table, proffering the platter of cold ham: all would come clear in good time, but it did not do to ask. It did not do to speak at all, unless directly addressed. It was best to be deaf as a stone to these conversations, and seem as incapable of forming an opinion on them.
Miss Mary lifted the serving fork and skewered a slice of ham. ‘Papadoesn’t mean your beaux, Lydia – do you, Papa?’
Mr B., leaning out of the way so that Mrs Hill could pour his coffee, said that indeed he did not mean her beaux: Lydia’s beaux always seemed to be in more than plentiful supply. But of working men there was a genuine shortage, which is why he had settled with this lad so promptly – this with an apologetic glance to Mrs Hill, as she moved around him and went to fill his wife’s cup – though the quarter day of Michaelmas was not quite yet upon them, it being the more usual occasion for the hiring and dismissal of servants.
‘You don’t object to this hasty act, I take it, Mrs Hill?’
‘Indeed I am very pleased to hear of it, sir, if he be a decent sort of fellow.’
‘He is, Mrs Hill; I can assure you of that.’
‘Who is he, Papa? Is he from one of the cottages? Do we know the family?’
Mr B. raised his cup before replying. ‘He is a fine upstanding young man, of good family. I had an excellent character of him.’
‘I, for one, am very glad that we will have a nice young man to drive us about,’ said Lydia, ‘for when Mr Hill is perched up there on the carriage box it always looks like we have trained a monkey, shaved him here and there and put him in a hat.’
Mrs Hill stepped away from the table, and set the coffee pot down on the buffet.
‘Lydia!’ Jane and Elizabeth spoke at once.
‘What? He does, you know he does. Just like a spider-monkey, like the one Mrs Long’s sister brought with her from London.’
Mrs Hill looked down at a willow-pattern dish, empty, though crusted round with egg. The three tiny people still crossed their tiny bridge, and the tiny boat crawled like an earwig across the china sea, and all was calm there, and unchanging, and perfect. She breathed. Miss Lydia meant no harm, she never did. And however heedlessly she expressed herself, she was right: this change was certainly to be welcomed. Mr Hill had become, quite suddenly, old. Last winter had been a worrying time: the long drives, the late nights while the ladies danced or played at cards; he had got deeply cold, and had shivered for hours by the fire on his return, his breath rattling in his chest. The coming winter’s balls and parties might have done for him entirely. A nice young man to drive the carriage, and to take up the slack about the house; it could only be to the good.
Mrs Bennet had heard tell, she was now telling her husband and daughters delightedly, of how in the best households they had nothing but manservants waiting on the family and guests, on account of every- one knowing that they cost more in the way of wages, and that there was a high tax to pay on them, because all the fit strong fellows were wanted for the fields and for the war. When it was known that the Bennets now had a smart young man about the place, waiting at table, opening the doors, it would be a thing of great note and marvel in the neighbourhood.
‘I am sure our daughters should be vastly grateful to you, for letting us appear to such advantage, Mr Bennet. You are so considerate. What, pray, is the young fellow’s name?
‘His given name is James,’ Mr Bennet said. ‘The surname is a very common one. He is called Smith.’
It was Mrs Hill who had spoken, barely above her breath, but the words were said. Jane lifted her cup and sipped; Elizabeth raised her eyebrows but stared at her plate; Mrs B. glanced round at her house- keeper. Sarah watched a flush rise up Mrs Hill’s throat; it was all so new and strange that even Mrs Hill had forgot herself for a moment. And then Mr B. swallowed, and cleared his throat, breaking the silence.
‘As I said, a common enough name. I was obliged to act with some celerity in order to secure him, which is why you were not sooner informed, Mrs Hill; I would much rather have consulted you in advance.’
Cheeks pink, the housekeeper bowed her head in acknowledgement.
‘Since the servants’ attics are occupied by your good self, your husband and the housemaids, I have told him he might sleep above the stables. Other than that, I will leave the practical and domestic details to you. He knows he is to defer to you in all things.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ she murmured.
‘Well.’ Mr B. shook out his paper, and retreated behind it. ‘There we are, then. I am glad that it is all settled.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs B. ‘Are you not always saying, Hill, how you need another pair of hands about the place? This will lighten your load, will it not? This will lighten all your loads.’
Their mistress took in Sarah with a wave of her plump hand, and then, with a flap towards the outer reaches of the house, indicated the rest of the domestic servants: Mr Hill who was hunkered in the kitchen, riddling the fire, and Polly who was, at that moment, thumping down the back stairs with a pile of wet Turkish towels and a scowl.
‘You should be very grateful to Mr Bennet for his thoughtfulness, I am sure.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Sarah.
The words, though softly spoken, made Mrs Hill glance across at her; the two of them caught eyes a moment.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Mrs Hill.
Mrs Bennet dabbed a further spoonful of jam on her remaining piece of buttered muffin, popped it in her mouth, and chewed it twice; she spoke around her mouthful: ‘That’ll be all, Hill.’
Mr B. looked up from his paper at his wife, and then at his housekeeper.
‘Yes, thank you very much, Mrs Hill,’ he said. ‘That will be all for now.’