Monday 12 August 2013

Longbourn by Jo Baker

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields.

It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah's hands are chapped and bleeding. Domestic life below stairs, ruled tenderly and forcefully by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman smelling of the sea, and bearing secrets.

For in Georgian England, there is a world the young ladies in the drawing room will never know, a world of poverty, love, and brutal war.

What a fantastic story idea. Pride and Prejudice in the servants point of view. Genius! 

I love any excuse to immerse myself in the world of Pride and Prejudice, so I just had to read this and was very kindly sent a review copy via Netgalley.

As soon as I began reading I was immersed into the servants lives. From Mr and Mrs Hill through to little Polly, just a child having to work for her means; not knowing any better. Sarah is the main protagonist in this. Orphaned, she is brought to Longbourn as a young girl to work as a maid and is not satisfied with her life, having once experienced the joy and happiness she had with her family. Sarah is intelligent, she can read well and knows more than her employers think she does. It is understandable that Sarah wants more than Longbourn can offer her, but fate has left her with little choice in the matter. 

Everyday is the same for the servants until James Smith the new footman is employed. Sarah cannot understand his indifference and quietness and believes he is hiding something. This also happens in sync with the Bingley's arrival at Netherfield and the footman that Sarah takes a liking to. I really warmed to Sarah as a main character and desperately wanted things to work out for her.

There are some really poignant scenes in this novel, one of them with James and Mrs Hill. James comes to them starved and when Mrs Hill places food in front of him he does not take it up, believing that he has to work first before he will be allowed to eat. This made my heart bleed at the thought of the hardship that those less fortunate than the Bennets had to go through just to stay alive.

Whilst we are immersed in the servants lives, everything that happens in Pride and Prejudice is going on around you, but it obviously takes a back seat. When I was reading about the servants, everything going on with the Bennets lives pales massively in comparison. Their worries are insignificant to the servants worries; and I know that the five girls were brought up having servants at their service, but I thought that Elizabeth and Jane would be a little bit more understanding and sympathetic than they were. This impression was gathered from reading Pride and Prejudice, but I am not saying that the author changed their characters as I expect this is how they would have been with their servants in the 1800's and some must have been less caring.

This novel will open your eyes onto a world that the Bennet sisters had no idea of. The servants lives were extremely hard. Up at 4:30am and in bed gone 11pm. Sarah suffering from Chilblains and blisters and forced to go out into the pouring rain at one point to get some shoe roses for the girls dancing shoes. Also reference to Elizabeth going on her long walks in Pride and Prejudice seems simple enough to us, but then the servants have to spend hours washing off the mud and dirt.

I thought this novel was fantastically written and the main Pride and Prejudice characters are exactly written as they were by Jane Austen. Lydia is as annoying as ever and you are reminded of Mrs Bennet and her 'nerves'. Clearly the author put a lot of research into this and we are rewarded with a brilliant novel.

What I particularly liked was that each of the servants have their own secrets and desires in life. I was quite shocked by Mr and Mrs Hill's separate secrets, but they are not unbelievable. I liked reading about their secrets and histories and that Jo Baker gives the servants a voice that they so rarely had in those days, even as we have witnessed in novels of that time.

The harsher realities of Jane Austen's era will compel you to read on to the next chapter, until before you know it, you have come to the end.

A brilliantly written and unique novel idea that all fans of Pride and Prejudice must read! 

Longbourn is out now! Get your copy here:


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