I love Jane Austen. I know she’s not for everyone, but I definitely have a soft spot for the author. Due to this soft spot I limit what I partake of in the Austen companion materials, no matter how long they’ve been a part of the Austen experience. The one that seems to have the most is Pride and Prejudice. I read Mr. Darcy’s Diary for Cannonball Read IV, but that experience and reading less than stellar reviews has kept me from reading Death Comes to Pemberley(read bonnie’s review though, it’s AWESOME), and I have not, as of yet, had anything to do with The Lizzie Bennett Diaries. But, after coming across a couple reviews of Longbourn by Jo Baker which claimed that it was good story on its own, I decided to take the plunge. This was a splendidly good choice.
Longbourn is centered on the staff hiding in the margins of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In her author’s note Ms. Baker highlights the characters which appear on Ms. Austen’s pages by name and which ones she has given names to. She also points out which characters appear frequently, and which are fleeting. From this sketch provided by Austen, and then a reasonably good amount of research about life below stairs (there are a handful of factual errors or anachronisms but nothing that took me completely out of the narrative and I’m pretty well informed) Ms. Baker sketches a story that interacts with the known narrative while simultaneously fleshing out the historical context.
But the best part, to me, is that Jo Baker took her wondering about the characters ‘off-page’ in Pride and Prejudice and crafted a story which simultaneously supports the previous work while standing alone. It has been a number of years since I have either read or watched a Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I’ve been spending my time with other Austen indulgences. I was not hindered in my understanding of Longbourn because this is not a Pride and Prejudice retelling. I didn’t need to remember details about Jane, or Elizabeth, or any of the other Bennetts, I was able to sink in and enjoy the story of Sarah, Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and James.
And that is the linchpin to making this a book that I was happy to return to over and over again. While Ms. Baker’s style echoes Ms. Austen’s and while the characters we’ve grown to love from Pride and Prejudice flit in and out of the narrative, it’s this new story told across a setting we well know that makes for an enjoyable read. And, on top of that it’s an interesting story at that. Sure, there’s some of the usual basking in the drudgery of the servant’s daily lives, but once the author establishes what daily life was like, and how there was such little time for happiness or joy, and certainly no idea of upward mobility for the servant class. So what happens to a staff when the family they serve will not be the one’s inheriting the property, and then what happens when the daughters of said family start to marry off and the staff is not needed at the same levels? Throw in a love story between Sarah and James, and the reveal of James’ backstory (which I’m sure has plenty of Austen purists getting their pitchforks ready) and I was all in, giving this book one of only my fourth five star rating out of forty books thus far.