Longbourn is all a flutter, Netherfield has a new master, a ball is to be had and the Bennet girls are beyond excited as they prepare to be at one of society’s most elegant events. Mrs Bennet who finds it insufferable that her daughters aren’t married, makes procuring a husband at this event her sole task. The story begins with gentle stirrings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice mixed in with comforting allusions to how their futures might progress.
While the story holds onto the energy of the original, Austen’s beloved characters remain more on the periphery as they deal with life, loss and love. Baker’s casting renders the somewhat non-existent Longbourn kitchen staff to a more useful and serious role, which gives this novel plenty of practicality and depth.
As a long devoted Janeite, I tend to pick up Austen related fiction with the expectation that a fresh new spin on those utterly irresistible past to present story lines will enthrall and hook me in. Although I’m inclined to say Austen’s mirthful jabs at society, her astute observations and clever wit are solely hers for the keeping, they will, at least in my mind, remain unsurpassed. Her characters, flaws and all, the ones we’ve compared ourselves to, analyzed, discussed and disagreed with, ones we’ve compared our love to and ones we’ve found utterly irresistible, are always indelibly whole and utterly incomparable.
With all that said, we move downstairs at Longbourn, to a new story, not unlike Austen’s, but a more serious brew if you know what to look for.
It took me a while to understand why I kept losing the plot and story, closing the book for another day. I didn’t like its tone at first, I wasn’t able to look beyond characters I had grown to love. I needed to hear from them. The pace didn’t sit well, it didn’t convey any of Austen’s wit or that distinct longing I’d previously felt when I visited the Bennets at Longbourn. Until I approached the story differently; I stepped away from characters I knew and met some new faces, wanting to learn who they were in the grand scheme of things, their roles, their hopes and dreams.
Once my mindset became more about the functional aspects of Longbourn, with a cast of characters equal to the task of holding their own. My rhythm found itself and just in time it maybe, as Jo Baker chose to build and layer her story. Then it began to flow as gently as the wind that blew over freshly scrubbed floors, boots and muddied petticoats, rustling past bouquets of English lavender In Mrs Hill’s kitchen, as it landed softly in ripples over churned buckets of milk.
Sarah, a young maid, around whom the author builds her story, is as much the narrator as she is a strong multi layered character. While I worked on getting to know Sarah, I found familiarity in Jane’s compassion and Lizzie’s honesty, Lydia and Kitty’s incessant verbal battles and Mary’s exasperation, as they all revealed themselves through Sarah’s voice. With her notions of who selfishly and thoughtlessly contributed to copious amounts of dirty laundry with bits of dried mud, who shared and showed kindness, the calloused fingers and rough skin, the chilblains from getting buckets of water at dawn and who her saving grace was, I found the workings of Longbourn’s kitchen much more interesting in this unusual take of a most beloved story.
Sarah’s strength and youthful exuberance copes very well with Mrs Hill’s maternal instincts. The Hills run the kitchen downstairs. Nothing and no one escapes their attention. Mrs Hill is not impressed when a man of mixed race, Ptolemy Bingley, shows a sophisticated interest in Sarah. This Bingley, a footman was born to a slave, (although his paternity is in question) on the Bingleys estates in the West Indies. Mrs Hill much to Sarah’s irritation, leaves very little to be discussed by the two when she places herself in every meeting spot possible.The man I did not care for myself, but he was able to carry Sarah’s hopes beyond the role of service, which transformed her character from a naïve young girl to a curious woman. I was quite impressed with the author for seamlessly introducing a bi-racial character with interesting implications to her story. I also found it heartening to watch Mrs Hill wield her strength, as she tried to protect Sarah from the dangers of believing her future was better off in London with the footman.
Mrs Hill, in this story has the added advantage of a strong relationship with Mr Bennet. Mrs Bennet she finds annoying, that is unfortunately the role poor Mrs Bennet has played in general. However, when a young footman turns up at Longbourn, a man who seems to be a transient, yet presents a sense of authority, justice and kindness about him, the plot changes into something completely unexpected and exciting.
Book Title -Longbourn By Jo Baker
- Transworld Publishers
- Black Swan Edition Great Britain, 2014
- ISBN 9780552779517