Longbourn

Longbourn

by Jo Baker

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Overview

Longbourn by Jo Baker

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book, a Seattle Times Best Title, a Christian Science Monitor Best Fiction Book, a Miami Herald Favorite Book, and a Kirkus Best Book of the Year

The servants take center stage in this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice. While Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters fuss over balls and husbands, Sarah, their orphaned housemaid, is beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When a new footman arrives at Longbourn under mysterious circumstances, the carefully choreographed world she has known all her life threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended. Mentioned only fleetingly in Jane Austen’s classic, here Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Regency England and, in doing so, uncovers the real world of the novel that has captivated readers’ hearts around the world for generations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345806970
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/17/2014
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 110,647
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jo Baker was born in Lancashire, England, and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of the novels The Under­tow, Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter II
 
‘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.’
 
‘James 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.’

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Longbourn, the captivating new novel by Jo Baker that proves that Pride and Prejudice was only half the story. 

1. "He was such a frustrating mixture of helpfulness, courtesy and incivility that she could indeed form no clear notion of him" (p. 39). What lies at the heart of Sarah's confusion about James? Are her feelings based on misapprehensions of James's attitude toward her? Is James responsible for creating the false impressions and mixed signals Sarah finds so frustrating? If so, what does it reflect about his confusion and lack of experience? Are James's perceptions of Sarah as limited as her perceptions of him? Why or why not?

2. Despite the great difference between their stations in life, in what ways are both Sarah and Elizabeth defined by the social strictures of the time? Are their assumptions about what they can and cannot achieve dictated by society or do they reflect their individual personalities?

3. Why is Sarah attracted to Mr. Bingley's servant Ptolemy? What effect does his attention have on her and her sense of herself as a woman? Does their flirtation influence her behavior with James? In the end, what does James offer her that is lacking in her relationship with Ptolemy?

4. Discuss the significance of the discoveries Sarah makes when she secretly explores James's room (pp. 64-65). What does the scene reveal about Sarah's grasp of the emotional complexities behind James's carefully constructed façade? In what respects in this a turning point in the novel?

5. What similarities are there between the progression of the courtships of Sarah and James and of Elizabeth and Darcy? What part does pride play in the way Sarah initially responds to James? Is Elizabeth guilty of the same kind of misplaced pride in her rejection of Darcy's first marriage proposal?

6. Are James and Sarah more open and honest with themselves and with each other than Darcy and Elizabeth? Is Sarah able to act on her feelings and make decisions in a way that the Bennet girls cannot? How does this affect the way her relationship with James unfolds? Discuss, for example, Sarah's and James's lack of inhibitions about (and downright enjoyment of) sex.

7. Baker details the harsh daily life of Sarah and the other servants. In addition to the descriptions of the backbreaking work they perform-from hauling water on freezing mornings and emptying chamber pots to scrubbing dishes, laundering mud-spattered petticoats, and washing rags soaked with menstrual blood-how does she illustrate the more subtle yet no less humiliating aspects of being a servant? What particular interactions between the Bennets and various members of the staff bring out the true nature of the relationship between the classes?

8. Baker also draws a sweeping historical picture that is largely absent from Pride and Prejudice, including insights into economic and social realities that influence everything from the privileges enjoyed by the wealthy to institutions such as the military. Does the fact that Mr. Bingley's wealth comes from sugar and tobacco, industries dependent on the exploitation of slave labor, affect your understanding of the world the Bennets inhabitant? Discuss the difference between what the Militia represents in Pride and Prejudice and the way it is depicted in Longbourn.

9. Why do you think Baker includes the long section devoted to James's experiences during the Napoleonic Wars (pp. 246-59)? Were you taken aback by the brutality Baker describes? What do James's actions and their consequences show about the prejudices and injustices suffered by young men like James? What facets of his character come to light? How does his experience as a soldier enhance James's role as a romantic hero?

10. Baker continues her story a bit beyond the ending of Pride and Prejudice. Do you find her speculations about what happens to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, their daughter Mary, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and Polly, satisfying (pp. 325-27)?

11. Polly and Sarah are both orphans, a common character in nineteenth-century novels, including such well-known works as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Why is a child who has lost or been abandoned by her parents such a persistent and powerful figure? Are there similarities between Sarah and Brontë’s Jane Eyre?

12. Another motif Longbourn shares with several nineteenth-century novels (particularly works in the Gothic tradition) is the mysterious or hidden background of a significant character—James in this work, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, the woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. What hints does Baker give about James’s origins when he first appears? How does the truth about him evolve and become clearer for both Sarah and the reader? Are the connections between James and members of the household believable? How do you think Jane Austen, whose Northanger Abbey is a famous parody of the Gothic novel, would react to this aspect of Longbourn?

13. Are there aspects of Longbourn that you were surprised to find in a literary novel set in the nineteenth century? In what ways does Longbourn reflect and embrace the sensibilities of the twenty-first century? Discuss, for example, Mr. Hill's secret life; the portrayal of Mr. Bingley's servant Ptolemy; the graphic descriptions of Sarah and James's sexual encounters; and Sarah's decision to leave Pemberley and set out on her own.

14. Does a reader's enjoyment of Longbourn depend on a familiarity with Pride and Prejudice? How does Baker assert an independent voice and vision while using the framework of Austen's novel?

15. Several books inspired by Pride and Prejudice have recently been published. How does Longbourn compare to other books you have read about the lives of the Bennets and the Darcys? Why do you think reworkings of Austen have become so popular?

Interviews

A conversation with Jo Baker, Author of Longbourn

Have you always been a fan of Jane Austen and in particular of Pride and Prejudice?

I can't even remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice - it seems like I've always known it. Jane Austen's work was my first real experience of grown-up literature, and I've kept on returning to her work throughout my life; I just love her books - I'm a sucker for all that buttoned-up desire and wish-fulfillment. But also, as a writer, I admire her - the immaculate prose, the deft plotting, the briskness of the characterization. I didn't, though, for a moment consider trying to write like her. It's impossible to do nowadays without shifting into parody - which is something I really did not want.

How did your family history in some ways inspire Longbourn?

As a child, reading Jane Austen, I became aware that 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 housework.

We've got some battered old silver cutlery at home, which we inherited from my great aunt. She and her sisters had been in service, and she always said the silverware was a gift from her employer when she left—my grandmother maintained, however, that she'd nicked it. Just a couple of generations back, my family were servants.

And so once I was aware of that - of that English class thing - Pride and Prejudice began to read a little differently. I noticed other presences. A footman enters, a housemaid is told to run along and do something. I also began to realize that some things that seemed to just "happen" - notes arriving, carriages being brought round, meals being served - would of course require human agency to make them occur. I became fascinated by these little flickers of activity: I started to see a whole other life going on below the surface of the book.

But Longbourn really began to take shape when I got snagged on the line "the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy". It's the week before the ball, the weather is far too bad for the Bennet girls to venture forth, and so they send a servant out to get soaked on their behalf. And that made it really stark for me. A maid has to trudge out in the rain, and get soaked to the skin, just to get these frivolous little decorations for the other women's dancing shoes.

Then, reading Jane Austen's letters, I stumbled across a reference to two sisters whom she employed to do some sewing for her. Their surname was Baker. Okay, it's a common name, but still, the coincidence struck me! It seemed a confirmation of my instincts.

Any hesitation about reimagining a classic?

I did hesitate. I hesitated for ages. I'd been thinking about this book for years before I first put pen to paper. That said, I don't really think of it as a "re-imagining". For me it's a "reading" of the classic. I just happen to "read" it a bit more intensively than might be usual, to include some elements that Austen didn't actually write.

I'll admit that Austen was peering over my shoulder while I was writing. Metaphorically speaking. But, again, when it came to characterization, I didn't want to write like her; I wanted to develop characters who could hold their own alongside hers, who would create space for themselves, who would be noticed in a crowded room. On a more personal level, I wanted to write characters who interested me, and kept surprising me. And they did.

Is there a character in Longbourn that you feel a particular affinity for?

I think I feel affinity for aspects of every one of them, really - I think when you're writing you seek to understand what's going on behind everybody's social mask. Writing fiction is all about empathy, really. So though we might be rooting for Sarah or James, I still love Mrs Bennet for her unarticulated sadness, and Mr. Hill for his acts of kindness, even though he might be gruff. Even Wickham, whose behaviour is dreadful - I do feel for him, because in this rigid, formal world he lacks a place - he doesn't belong anywhere.

What kind of feedback have you had from readers and Austen fans?

Readers, on the whole, whether already Austen fans or no - have been overwhelmingly positive. I've only had a very few entirely negative responses to the book so far - and in each case from people who hadn't actually read it. One gentleman was keen to inform me about an ancestor of his who was testified against by a servant - the servant had witnessed him in 'criminal conversation' with a married lady. This was in the 1700s; the family had to ten thousand pounds in compensation to the lady's husband, and the young man was banished to France. The present-day gentleman seemed be holding a grudge against servants in general as a result. He certainly seemed to think they didn't merit the attention I had given them.

Who have you discovered lately?

I've been reading Graham Robb's marvelous book Parisians: an Adventure History of Paris. A kind of psychogeography, it moves from the establishment of the city of Paris to the present day, using the stories of individual inhabitants to trace the history of a city. There's a fabulous section on Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI's attempted escape, and the piece on the Vel d'Hiv roundup was so desperate and moving that I had to read it sidelong, not really looking. A fabulous book.

Customer Reviews

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Longbourn 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 68 reviews.
clahain1 More than 1 year ago
I wasn't so sure about this one at first. Considering all the Austen sequels, prequels, and re-tellings that have appeared in the past couple of years alone, it's hard to stand out, to somehow make a classic like Pride & Prejudice new. Literary writers have it harder than those turning the book into a contemporary romance or a murder mystery, because the result has to be more than ephemeral entertainment, it has to actually mean something. At the same time, this is Jane Austen--get too heavy  and your audience will riot. Just ask writer/director Patricia Rozema, who tried to insert a bit of historical relevance into her 1999 feature film version of Mansfield Park, treating viewers to hints of Sir Betram's untoward relations with the female slaves on his Antigua plantation and Lady Bertram's addiction to the opiate laudanum. Austen lovers were not amused. Author Jo Baker manages to tread the fine line between literary merit and pure reading enjoyment. She does this by essentially turning Pride & Prejudice on its head. The Bennets, Darcys, and Binglys become minor characters in a drama centering on their normally invisible maids, housekeepers and footmen. In reality, we aren't getting a retelling of a classic at all but a largely original work. The plot centers around housemaid Sarah and James Smith, the natural (illegitimate) son of housekeeper Mrs. Hill and Mr. Bennet, master of an estate that will be entailed away from his heirs because none of the legitimate ones are male. It's this beautiful and tragic irony that provides the central thread of the novel. Baker does a great job recreating the daily grind of life in service during the regency period. Her descriptions of maids washing their mistresses' filthy menstrual rags and carrying  sloshing chamber pots down staircases and through endless twisting corridors on the way to the outdoor "necessary" house brings us right into that cold, aching, stinking world. Yet Baker works to present us with rounded human beings rather than stick figure examples of the evils of social inequality. There's plenty righteous indignation on the part of the servants for their employers' often frivolous demands on their time and energy, but also genuine care and concern flow both upstairs and down. Where Baker does go wrong is in the beginning of volume three of the book, when the action at Longbourn stops dead and we are treated to an exhausting flashback of James's experiences as a  gunner in Portugal and Spain. Three chapters of violence, hunger and sexual exploitation that lead us....where? We already know the footman has an unhappy past and is wary of being noticed by soldiers of the militia staying in Meryton. And, through two taut interactions with the noxious and conniving Wickham, we get enough detail to set up the coming plot turns. The flashback is gratuitous  and undercuts the novel at the very point when it should be the tightest and most dramatic. Luckily, Baker does get back to Longbourn and even takes us beyond the end of Pride & Prejudice, so we get to follow James, Sarah, Polly, and Mrs. Hill a little way into their futures. Here's where the book really succeeds. Baker's servant class characters are as fascinating to spend time with as Austen's elegant creations and, by the end, we're just as sorry to say goodbye to them.
MommaG More than 1 year ago
This is not just another P&P variation. This book stands apart from all of the sequals, prequals and variations. It is not another story of the Bennets and Darcys but a story of the average person and the not so romantic real life of everyday Regency England. The story of Sarah, James and Mr. and Mrs. Hill changes how we think of the "gentle" class of Bennets. Mrs. Hill who is always portrayed as Mrs. Bennet's crutch becomes a person with a past and a present and secrets that have a lasting affect on the members of the Bennet family. Elizabeth, while not a Caroline Bingley looking down her nose at the world, is unaware that others are not there to do her bidding. Elizabeth,as an extension of Darcy's arrogance and entitlement, is unable to understand why Sarah is unhappy with being separated from those she loves. The history and the lives of those that serve provide another look into this period and another view of some of our favorites. The characters of Sarah, the Hills and James are real. I fell for James and his kindness and pain and Sarah as she matured and realized that there was more for her life if she took control. I loved this book and will read it again and again. Jo Baker's characters are alive and moving. Excellant, excellant book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jane Austen would be disappointed to have this book connected to her name or work in anyway. The plot was weak and the characters unappealing and at times downright immoral.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jo Baker writes a story that goes right inline with "Pride and Preduice". If you are familiar with Austen's work you can picture what was happening throughout the entire Bennet household. Worth the time spent reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great premise for all of the Pride and Prejudice lovers out there. Unfortunately, the characters are dull, the story line weak, and the book is flat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book!! I now will read again "Pride and Prejudice" because of this novel. Wonderful characters and great information about servants in this time period. Wonderful love story. Such a great idea for a book - well written, familiar but also new, and totally grabs the reader. Loved this book!! Another great novel I loved on the Nook is "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. It is based on facts and has wonderful male and female characters and a horrible villian. Both novels deserve A+++++++++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fan of Downton Abbey and P&P, I was excited about this book and Entertainmently Weekly made it sound perfect. It was slow, boring and I didn't like or care about the main character. Only interesting bit was the Housekeeper back story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pride and Prejudice meets Upstairs, Downstairs. I am a big Jane Austen fan and typically re-read Pride and Prejudice once or twice a year. But I will probably never read it the same way again, now that I have read Longbourn. Jo Baker retells Austen's most loved story from the point of view of the Bennet family servants and with their lives at the center of the action. The result is a compelling novel and a serious commentary on social inequality in both Austen's time and our own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Surpisingly well written and believable. Most Austen spin offs are not. Harsher reality of life downstairs than upstairs.
books4gail More than 1 year ago
Longbourn combines beautiful writing with a plot that did not hold my interest. Baker captures the "downstairs" tedium beautifully but failed to captivate me with the love triangle of the main characters. Of course, the comparison is Elizabeth/Darcy/Wickham--no one could win that contest. I agree with another reviewer that the book goes off the rails in volume three. The closer we stay to Sarah, the more interesting the plot is.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a well written and an accurate portrayl of the servant class. However it was difficult to read. Not becuase the characters were unintresting or for lack of a plot. But because honestly the whole book was just sort of sad. The servants slave away taking thier misfortunes as they come and settle for the life they have. While I am sure thats accurate I cant say it was enjoyable to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Often I don't care enough about the characters in a novel because they are not made real and the author loses me. Not so with this engrossing novel. The characters become real very quickly and stay real. I couldn't put the book down. I was transported back in time, and lived through their joys and miseries with them. Only praise for this wonderful imaginative and empathetic portrait of a past time that in its exploration of inequality is very much a depiction of the inequality that remains today.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Baker creates well-drawn characters to delve into the unseen corners of Jane Austen’s world. A well-written deeply engaging novel.
Tracey_L More than 1 year ago
I'm usually pretty leery of Jane Austen retellings, but this one got it right. The world below stairs isn't pretty, and Ms. Baker didn't flinch away from the reality of it. There were a couple of parts that didn't quite seem to mesh with the story, but overall it was well written and enjoyable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really liked the beginning, the first two "books." I was even telling people about how awesome this book was. I've always loved pride and prejudice- movies, the book. I always get excited when I see a "spin off." But... The ending was way less than impressive. It was very rushed, not to mention I rushed because at the same time I wanted it to be over. Overall the over was pretty good just sorely disappointed with the end :(
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written with intrigue and excitement.
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Jamaican More than 1 year ago
I absolutely love this book!! Her prose just sings and all the characters come to life. I read Pride and Prejudice for an English Literature class in high school but have totally forgotten it. This book was so good that I today bought Pride and Prejudice to read again on my Nook. Also bought The Undertow, by this same author..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have already read this book twice because I enjoyed it so much. It reminds me of the wonderful experience of reading Jane Austen, only with "downstairs" characters. I love how Jo Baker weaves in the story of "Pride and Prejudice" with this story. I actually like these characters as much as I like the original Austen characters. I also felt that the story kept my interest and I wanted to know what would happen to each of the characters. Totally enjoyable read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved
Anonymous More than 1 year ago