LONGBOURN by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker
The October EDIWTB online book club pick was Longbourn, by Jo Baker.  Longbourn is wisely aimed at two passionate audiences: Austen-philes eager to extend Pride and Prejudice through yet another companion novel, and Downton Abbey enthusiasts interested in what happens downstairs in old, grand English estates while the aristocracy fuss and dine and needlepoint upstairs. The main characters in Longbourn are not the Bennets, but the Bennets’ servants: Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, Polly and James. Sarah and Polly were orphans taken in as young girls by the Hills to help serve the Bennets, and James is a mysterious young man who shows up with little explanation and is hired as a footman. He develops feelings for Sarah, but has a painful past that he cannot escape, threatening their relationship as well as his security in the Bennet’s employ.

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books of all time, but I am not an Austen freak. I haven’t read any of the MANY P&P sequels, and while I did see the Keira Knightley movie version (that kiss at the end!), I most recently skipped Austenland, the latest film loosely based on the book. To me, the original was so perfect that when I am in a P&P mood, I just re-read it, rather than trying to recreate the magic elsewhere.

That said, I loved Longbourn. It felt less like a companion book to P&P than a standalone novel that was merely punctuated by the key plot developments in the original Austen work. The Bennets were relegated to a minor status in Longbourn, allowing Sarah and Mrs. Hill in particular to carry the narrative weight. The story moved along beautifully after a somewhat slow start, and I had a hard time putting the book down.

Interestingly, the key dramas from P&P – Elizabeth’s ambivalence about Darcy, Bingley’s abandonment of Jane – are not touched on at all in Longbourn. Wickham and Lydia’s elopement is addressed, as is Mr. Collins’ thwarted pursuit of Elizabeth, but the Bennet plots are largely subverted in Longbourn, playing a distant second fiddle to Sarah’s romantic yearnings and Mrs. Hill’s quiet grief. This is a grittier, sadder book than P&P, as evidenced by Mrs. Hill’s conclusion in Chapter 8: “Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everyone, eventually, failed.” This makes sense, given the differences in quality of life between the gentry and the servants. Though while the servants often yearned for the leisure and comforts of their employers, Mrs. Hill ultimately decided that “no matter how they got [to the end of their lives], after all, the end was all the same.”

The Bennets themselves really get taken down a notch in Longbourn. They are much less sympathetic here than in the original novel. Each of them comes across as self-absorbed to an extreme, giving hardly a thought to the private lives of servants they have known most of their lives. Not even our beloved Elizabeth escapes unscathed; she may be better than the others, but she is still pretty inconsiderate at times. We see a much more inhibited, insecure Elizabeth at the end of the book as she settles into life at Pemberley and tries to live up to the ideal of a man whose opinion she once regarded as prejudiced and pretentious. And Mr. Bennet, who is mostly just cranky and derisive of his wife in the original, is a much colder, self-interested man in Longbourn.

Baker clearly did her research; there is a lot of period detail in Longbourn and many historical touches that made life at Longbourn very vivid for her readers. I had to look up a lot of words, several of which didn’t even appear in the dictionary.

I could go on and on about Longbourn, and I think that I will enjoy it even more as I go over it in my mind in the weeks ahead. But I want to hear what EDIWTB book club participants thought of Longbourn. Did it affect your feelings about the original? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Please leave your comments below.

And thank you to Knopf for facilitating this online book club!

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponEmail this to someone

16 Comments

  • Rica
    October 30, 2013 - 7:57 am | Permalink

    I found the book to be very slow moving. It just didn’t grab me from the start. I didn’t think the character development was established well. That being said, I wasn’t interested in the characters.

  • Susan
    October 30, 2013 - 8:01 am | Permalink

    I must say that I haven’t been able to get into this book. It’s not a book that compels me to keep reading and not put it down. I will work may way through and hopefully by the end of the book I’ll be able to come back and post something positive.

  • Miriam
    October 30, 2013 - 9:19 am | Permalink

    Gayle-
    Thank you for choosing this excellent book and to Knopf for providing copies to us. I loved this book and have been exclaiming about it to anyone who will listen. I loved that it was set in P&P time but was a totally different story.
    I was so caught up in Sarah and James’ story. It was such a wonderful satisfying read. I loved the old English words and that helped you get into the story at a deeper level.
    I could not put this book down.
    When James’ narrative in the middle of the book unfolded, I did not want to leave Sarah’s but totally got caught up with his story. And the way the narrative weaves together at the end was brilliant.
    I loved that it was based on P&P but a different story.
    Miriam

  • Marcia
    October 30, 2013 - 9:36 am | Permalink

    Gayle-
    Thank you for this opportunity to read this wonderful novel. I absolutely loved it.
    I loved that Sarah and James had their own story in this novel and both were so compelling. I could not put it down.
    I found my feelings affected by the hard life of these servants. Right away in the book you hear about her chilblains and the part where James helps her out with the nappies of the visiting family was so touching. The author comments early on “it was, to Sarah, the smell of resentment: her hands were already blistered from the flat-irons…”. The author conveys the harsh reality of their lives, “you must see that to work is your duty, and … like all of us you will find satisfaction in doing your duty”.
    I loved the tender developing love story between Sarah and James. And what a beautiful and tender conclusion!!!
    Marcia

  • Lindsay
    October 30, 2013 - 10:06 am | Permalink

    Gayle,
    Thank you so much for coordinating this online book club! Thank you to Knopf as well for making copies of the book available to all of us. I thoroughly enjoyed Longbourn. I don’t know where my brain was when I started it, but I wasn’t originally aware of the premise of the book (I try not to read backs or flyleaves until I have begun to read a book). As I read, I kept thinking, these characters sound familiar, as do the names, and when I looked it up, I was pleased to be reading a companion to a favorite book of mine. I, like others who have posted, enjoyed the characters and the story very much and read it very quickly. It moved for me and I wanted to know what was going to happen at the end. While I felt for the characters, I felt that chilblains were over-mentioned, particularly at the beginning. But, once I got into the story, I didn’t notice quite as much. I did not enjoy the foray into James’ army experience, but I see why the author constructed the book that way. I hated when the book ended and could have read more. That to me is a the sign of a good book. I have already passed it along to a friend and have another person in mind after that.
    Lindsay

  • October 30, 2013 - 10:28 am | Permalink

    I wanted to finish the last few chapters before today but I didn’t get a chance to do that last night, so I have to weigh in without the final chapters to consider but I enjoyed the book. I have not read P&P though but I never felt as if I was “out of the loop” with any of it. It just seemed like a stand alone novel to me.

    I think the author did a good job portraying what servants of that time had to go through and I liked the upstairs/downstairs aspect of it. I am a Downton Abbey fan and the book did have that feel to it. But I agree with the others, the beginning was a little slow and I think the overuse of the word “chilblain” just about did me in. Once I got past the beginning though I felt that the pages flew by.

    One thing this book has done is make me want to read P&P. I have had a copy for ages and SWORE to myself last year that I would read it and it never happened. I made the same promise this year and hello, it is almost November and it is still unread. What do you love about P&P that makes it such a great book for you?

  • Jen
    October 30, 2013 - 11:30 am | Permalink

    NOTE – some spoilers below!

    Gayle – thanks for inviting me to this discussion! I have mixed feelings about the book. P&P is one of my favorites, too, and I have read a lot of the other “sequels” (though I usually don’t admit it – they are pretty much all kind of trashy!). This one felt different and a bit more authentic. I really loved feeling like I was learning about my favorite characters from a different perspective; though it was hard to read about Elizabeth as a character I didn’t really like, and frankly, I didn’t really agree with the ending casting her as so insecure about Darcy – that is not in line with her character as I saw it and sort of unbelievable. Actually a lot of it felt kind of unbelievable – that James was who he was and that he happened to be working there (did I miss that? maybe that was on purpose), that Mrs. Hill lived under Mr. Bennet’s roof for so long with such a big secret and was able to have these secret and serious talks with him and even boss him around a little, and even the romance between Ptolemy and Sarah seemed a little contrived. On the other hand, Wickham was just perfect – his following Polly around was awesome, and I loved how Sarah saw right through him.

    All of that being said, I really liked the book (except the part about James in the army, I skimmed that part). I enjoyed thinking about the girls and how selfish they were, for example, to go walking in the mud to Netherfield only to ruin their clean white petticoats. Mrs, Bennet and the girls were exactly the way I thought they would be through the eyes of a servant, and Mr. Collins was perfect, too. The romance between Sarah and James was really sweet, and it felt real (though why he left without a goodbye seemed a little dramatic). Anyway, sorry for all the spoilers, I haven’t done one of these before so I just tried to think about what I would say at an in-person book club!

    • October 30, 2013 - 12:46 pm | Permalink

      No one seems to have enjoyed the army part. I lost interest in that part quickly as well.

  • Suzie
    October 30, 2013 - 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you to you and to Knopf for the opportunity to read this book. It did start slowly but I found after the first 50 pages the pace picked up considerably.

    While I did enjoy the book, I certainly felt the Bennett family was much less sympathetic. In fact, I found myself annoyed by them as a whole!

    I really enjoyed the descriptive imageries of the period. I found Sarah to be likeable and was really rooting for her.

  • Susan B
    October 30, 2013 - 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Thank you to Gayle and Knopf for making this book discussion possible. I was excited to read this novel and ended up having mixed feelings about it. I did think it was an interesting read, however. Sometimes a book is more memorable when you have mixed feelings about it.

    I thought the characters, particularly Sarah and Mrs. Hill, were well drawn and sympathetic. After a bit of a slow start I did get wrapped up in their lives. It’s a satisfying spin to experience the drama of the daily lives of characters who are shadow figures to the Bennet family and the readers of P&P. They seemed so inconsequential to the Bennets and yet their lives were filled with at least as much drama as what P&P readers know was going on upstairs. There were times that I felt distracted by the P&P plot points and wished the Bennets would go away so the downstairs story could continue without interruption. I was surprised by the fact that Mrs. Hill was so worried about Mr. Collins and the lines of inheritance – it made perfect sense but was something I had never considered. I was also surprised by the character of Ptolemy and found him intriguing. Also, since there is an inevitable Downton Abbey comparison, I was expecting the servants to be a bit more a part of the family. The fact that this was not the case got me thinking about what things really would have been like and whether the 100 years of so difference between Longbourn and Downton Abbey would have resulted in somewhat less of a division between upstairs and downstairs (or whether that just makes for good TV!).

    However, I did reach a point where I thought the liberties taken with the P&P characters were too much and that soured the reading experience for me. While I recognize that both P&P and Longbourn are fiction, the P&P characters are so well established in popular culture that it put me off to be forced to consider some of them in such a different light. I don’t consider myself a P&P purist but perhaps it is a book I hold more dearly than I thought. I was saddened by the post-marriage portrayal of Elizabeth and very, very disappointed in the treatment of Mr. Bennet (frankly, it made me angry). Even Wickham, who is undeniably a cad in P&P, was treated with a very harsh hand.

    So, as I said, mixed feelings about this one but it’s a good book for discussion and I’m glad I get to see what others thought about it.

  • Marcia
    October 30, 2013 - 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Gayle………..I am finding this discussion of the book so interesting and I am surprised
    that others didnt absolutely love it like I did. I like reading the insightful comments.
    I didn’t find the part about James’ army experience that jarring as I just went along with it as part of the story. Yes, when it started you wanted to continue with Sarah’s story, but then you got caught up with his narrative.
    I did so love her English turn of phrase………and the archaic words were wonderful. At one point she says something about an almighty kerfluffle…………and “leaving the pigs to their snuffly munching”……I just loved her writing!
    I loved the characters too…………listen to what she says about James…….”the world could be made entirely anew, because someone was kind”……”He would keep his head down,….. not
    even look at Sarah, for all she as so very good to look at.”
    This was a wonderful story.!

  • gayle
    October 30, 2013 - 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Loving this discussion – thanks everyone for your insightful comments. A few things I wanted to add:

    @Ti: Why do I love P&P…? It’s a gentle story, but full of twists and turns and such subtle humor. I love Austen’s writing, I love the love story underneath it all (it is incredibly romantic), and I love the memorable characters. There is a reason it’s a classic – it’s just such a wonderful book!

    @Marcia: I didn’t love the war chapters either, but they weren’t that bad. And they explained why James was who he was. It’s such a contrast to the genteel lives lived by the Bennets, and even by the militia men stationed at Longbourn – I think it was important to include those chapters to show what serving in the war was really like.

    @Jen and others: Re the liberties taken by Baker with the Bennets, I find it striking that we are all so loyal to Austen’s Bennets and don’t want to believe there are other perspectives on them. Does Baker have an obligation to leave them pure, as written in P&P? Or is she allowed to mold them to her liking?

    Keep the comments coming!

  • Karla
    October 30, 2013 - 5:45 pm | Permalink

    At the onset, I was intrigued to read a story playing on the classic Pride & Prejudice. I love this kind of work, playing on a known story and taking it somewhere else.

    I know this may be sacrilege, but I’ve never really loved P&P. I found most of the characters annoying and I just don’t connect with Austen’s writing the way that so many do. But I found something far more relatable in Longbourn and deeply appreciated the life and depth that Baker brought to the servant characters.

    Longbourn keeps the Austen lead characters as a back drop, and, like a play’s back drop, the characters are resultingly two dimensional. This flatness coupled with the closeness the reader feels toward the servants, significantly exaggerates the Bennets’ superficiality. While reading about poor Sarah’s chillblains (it took nearly the whole book before I looked it up and then I felt really badly that I wasn’t adequately sympathizing with Sarah, poor thing), and James’ anxious secret keeping, the Bennets’ come across as an appalling bunch of pigs, as in the scene where they devour the tasty treats made by their cooks and lusted after by their servants, even eating the crumbs.

    I loved the Sarah and James romance though and was seriously rooting for them. In fact this is the story that kept me in. Their tender love.

    Like Susan B, I found some things far fetched. I couldn’t help wondering about the history of the period. I was so touched, as Sarah was, when James completed domestic work for her. But really, would a man, even a servant, be willing to take on tasks that were domestic chores of the women. Maybe only when they were in love? ;)

    Thanks very much Gayle for the opportunity to participate and for beginning the conversation!

  • Jen
    October 30, 2013 - 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I definitely don’t think that an author has to be faithful to the characters – actually, I liked the fact that I was forced to think about the characters that I have always thought to be so perfect in a different light. The way she depicted them – especially Elizabeth – was so interesting and also believable. I guess I was expecting more of a Downton Abbey take on it, and this was much harsher, and probably more realistic.

  • Marcia
    October 30, 2013 - 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Gayle…..I just loved this book.!!!
    I just wanted to comment on the characters of Mrs Hill and Mrs Bennett…. all those secrets.
    And Mrs Hill giving Mrs. Bennett doses of Cordial balm of Gilead (don’t you love that name?)Then you learn the secret of James’ birth……..”In the witching hour of a winter night,
    she brought forth a tiny scrap of a boy”.
    “Endure and pray that was all that could be done”.
    And the wonderful ending that was so satisfying……….”"She saw the moment that he saw her, how he went entirely still”………. “The simple fact of her who was everyday a miracle.”
    And “the baby newly woken, gazed up with wide and startled eyes”.
    “She smiled up at him; he took her hand”.. I just sighed and wished the story wasn’t over.

  • Polly
    October 30, 2013 - 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I really loved this book and read it almost cover to cover on a flight to CA. I found it the perfect combination of substance and romance to really hold my (totally scattered) attention. I haven’t had time yet to read all the comments, so will respond with initial impressions now and more later. I really appreciated the perspective that the book brought on P&P, which as for many others here, is one of my favorites — both from the mundane to the more thoughtful. Washing the skirts that Elizabeth proudly wears through the mud. And providing a whole different perspective on the extent of choices available to young women of different classes. Elizabeth may have thought herself constrained, but that was nothing compared to Sarah’s world.

    The war chapters lost me some, but I was still engaged in the book. On the whole, the back third was not as satisfying as the beginning. Seemed more fabricated and fanciful — ending with what my sister calls a neat “Scooby Doo Ending.” But I was attached to the characters and so was glad for a happy ending.

    All in all, I really enjoyed this book and have recommended it to others.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>