On Sunday, I read the NYT review of Jo Baker’s new book, Longbourn. As soon as I finished the review, I ordered the book, which arrived Wednesday evening. By 2:00 AM Thursday, I had finished it.
I like Austen, but my favorite Austen novel is Mansfield Park, not Pride & Prejudice. The BBC and other adaptations sometimes make the world of her novels seem too cloistered, too precious, and too refined to me. (Mrs Hurst Dancing can be a helpful corrective.) So of course I was captivated by the premise of Longbourn: “The world of the people who laid the fires, cooked the meals and fetched the horses for Jane Austen’s Bennet family.”
The story was engaging–heck, I stayed up until 2:00AM to find out how it ended–and while I found it slightly romantic for my taste, on the whole, the world was believable.
For one thing, there is plenty of mud. And Sarah the housemaid must clean the mud off the Bennett girls’ petticoats. The hauling of water, laying of fires, and the chill and exhaustion the maids feel is pretty well rendered. Baker addresses the question I’ve always had, How did servants tolerate servitude? by portraying Sarah’s struggle with resentment and resignation to her lot.
I thought, too, that the way Baker described women as “breeding” was also good; she referred as well to Elizabeth Bennett’s “dark, musky” armpits, and that seemed a nice way to slip in historical hygiene information. But women in English gentry were valued for their breeding capabilities: the need for a male heir didn’t die with Henry VIII, and it is much of what drives, or drove, the plot of Downton Abbey. For women, the past was a smaller world, and Sarah’s life is particularly small. Her carriage rides help define the very real confinement of her world.
There are a few slips: backpack instead of knapsack once or twice, but not many. It feels well-researched, well imagined, and believable. I don’t want to wreck it for you, so I won’t go into too much…there are some classic plot twists and devices that I put up with because they’re so typical of the literature of the period. I particularly enjoyed that Sarah reads from Mr Bennett’s library, including Pamela. It was a nice way to reinforce Wickham’s creepiness, and the echoes between the novel derived from a novel, in which fictional characters read real novels, delighted me. (Being a fictional character myself.)
Jo Baker’s not Hilary Mantel-– this isn’t the kind of writing where the language stops you cold and sentences leave you breathless with awe, but for historical fiction derived from Jane Austen, Baker’s book is excellent and well-written.