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• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own. 

352 pages, Hardcover

First published October 8, 2013

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About the author

Jo Baker

23 books862 followers
Jo Baker is the author of six novels, most recently Longbourn and A Country Road, A Tree. She has also written for BBC Radio 4, and her short stories have been included in a number of anthologies. She lives in Lancaster, England, with her husband, the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville, and their two children.

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Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,655 followers
December 4, 2013
It's become a cliche to love Jane Austen's books. Her oeuvre is so popular that it has inspired a vast amount of fan fiction, much of it crap. I've been a Janeite for about 15 years and have read all of Miss Austen's works (excepting her Juvenilia, which I'm saving for a rainy day). I've also picked up dozens of the fan novels in an effort to extend the stay in her world. I say "picked up" rather than read, because a great deal of the fanfic is insufferable and must be tossed after the first chapter.**

"Longbourn" is one of the exceptions. The simple description is that it is a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" from the servants' point of view. But it goes deeper than just a retelling -- Longbourn made the Bennet home come alive. For the first time in all of my readings of P&P, I felt as if I lived in the same house as Miss Elizabeth, Jane, Kitty, Lydia, Mary and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. I know what time the housemaids got up to light the fires and draw the water. I know when the cook began preparing the dinner. I know how the linens got washed, and how muddy it was to walk to Meryton to get supplies. I even know a few secrets about the housekeeper that would have surprised Miss Austen.

And this is where the two novels diverge -- Jo Baker has created full characters out of the servants, who are almost invisible in P&P. The story is mostly told by Sarah, a housemaid who has been working at Longbourn since she was orphaned at age 6. The cook, Mrs. Hill, thinks of Sarah as family, and is worried what will happen to the staff if the estate is entailed away to Mr. Collins. I liked having the servant's perspective on this well-known plot line -- it was a good reminder of how many people were actually affected by Mr. Bennet's lack of a male heir.

The story picks up quickly when a new footman named James Smith is hired. Sarah thinks James has a secret and is determined to find out about his past. Meanwhile, her head is turned by a handsome servant who works for Mr. Bingley. Sarah, who reminded me a bit of the headstrong Jane Eyre, thinks that life should be something more than just emptying chamber pots every day and always washing other people's linens. If only someone would take notice of Sarah...

I should warn diehard P&P fans that if you're hoping to spend more time swooning over Mr. Darcy, you will be disappointed. Aside from Mr. Wickham, who likes to lurk around the servants and tries to seduce a young maid, the men from P&P are only on the periphery of this story. You'll see more of the Bennets as the servants interact with them, but the "downstairs" plot takes its own path.

Baker's prose is lovely, and I was enchanted with almost all of the book. My one criticism was that too much time was spent on James' back story, and I was anxious to return to Longbourn. But that is a mere quibble in an otherwise wonderful novel. Three cheers for Jo Baker for bringing the Bennet home to life!

**In addition to "Longbourn," my recommendations for the best Jane Austen fanfic are Pamela Aidan's "An Assembly Such as This" (part I of a trilogy), "Jane Fairfax" by Joan Aiken, and Amanda Grange's series of gentlemen's diaries, such as "Mr. Darcy's Diary," "Mr. Knightley's Diary," "Colonel Brandon's Diary," etc. I declare them charming and delightful reads.
Author 5 books588 followers
September 6, 2015
Hoo, boy.

Where do I start?

Actually, that's easy. Any review of Longbourn should feature this warning right at the top: If you are an Austen purist, this book will give you a stroke and a heart attack and possibly cancer.

So there's that.

Oh, also: Any novel written by a non-servant is apparently required by law to feature at least one passage in which a character who is a servant will ponder life as a person of leisure and decide, "Naw. Overrated."

Yeah. THAT happened.

I wanted to adore this book because I'm tired of people talking about how lovely life was in the Regency. No, it wasn't. Not even if you were rich, although that was *miles* better than being poor.

Even if you were rich, there was no plumbing, very little in the way of social mobility, and nothing remotely resembling a maxi pad, let alone a tampon. (Not even, in spite of what the author of Longbourn says, any "napkins." Where would you put one? There wasn't anything in the way of underwear as we know it. See Susanne Alleyn's awesome Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders for convincing evidence of that.)

There was no reliable birth control, and no quick-and-easy food for those nights when you just don't feel like cooking. Women spent all day preparing or looking after the work of food preparation, and routinely wrote their wills when they became pregnant.

There were no no-fault divorces, and very few "he's TOTALLY at fault" divorces even if your husband was an adulterous batterer.

And -- I'm saving the worst for last here -- there was NO CHOCOLATE. Okay, there was a drink called chocolate, but it was outrageously expensive and it wasn't sweet.

I love Austen's novels, but I have no illusions about the era in which she lived and wrote. I worked as a live-in domestic myself, and I'm constantly thinking about the servants who made those leisured lives possible.

So I was excited to read Longbourn, a retelling of Pride & Prejudice from the vantage point of one of the Bennet's housemaids. I was sold when I read the pull-quote every review featured: "If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them."

Perfect. Think about that the next time you read the scene in P&P where Lizzy shows up at Bingley's house with her petticoat three inches deep in mud.

I admire Jo Baker's determination to show the story from a different angle. Her premise is solid, her prose beautiful.

So why am I so put-out by this book?

Partly because it's a bummer from beginning to end. It's Les Miserables without the funny musical numbers.

I think it's just as dehumanizing to servants to assume their lives are endless misery as it is to ignore them. Yes, this book has a happy ending, technically. But it starts out bleak, it continues dire, and it crosses the finish line with a vague "So that turned out okay, I guess."

Speaking of bleak: Anyone who's read Bleak House will probably not find the "surprise middle" of Longbourn particularly surprising. Many who have read P&P will find aspects of it offensive.

Jo Baker takes a lot of liberties with P&P. I never thought of myself as a purist, but this bothered me. For instance, she insists on following the heavily trod (trodden? trode? whatever) path of Mary Bennet being infatuated with Mr. Collins. Know what it says in the book about that?

"Mary might have been prevailed on to accept him. She rated his abilities much higher than any of the others; there was a solidity in his reflections which often struck her, and though by no means so clever as herself, she thought that if encouraged to read and improve himself by such an example as her's [sic], he might become a very agreeable companion."

"She thinks he's a fixer-upper," my husband commented when I read this to him. But everybody -- movie-makers, Austen "sequel" writers -- somehow turns this into Mary adoring Mr. Collins from afar and longing to have him as her own. And of course Baker follows suit.

She also features quotations from P&P at the beginning of every chapter. Except in the flashback section, where they wouldn't make sense. Except I don't think they make sense anywhere. What are they supposed to be? Messages from God?

Anyway. Back to the liberties. Mary's in love. Mr. Collins is a really nice guy, not at all pompous or judgmental. Mr. Bennet has a lot of lines, and one of them is cuttingly sarcastic. One.

Are you ishing me?

Speaking of ish: Baker talks about it a lot. By name. It is, apparently, everywhere in Regency England. You couldn't open your carriage door without smacking into a load of ish. I'm surprised the publisher didn't offer a special scratch-and-sniff edition of Longbourn, just to get the point across. Point being: Wow, you guys, was there a lot of manure in the bad old days.

You know what there wasn't? The kind of 21st-century thinking Baker gives her miserable underclass characters. The line about how Miss Bennet could be a little more careful of her things was perfect. But there's no way a teenaged maidservant in the eighteenth century was thinking, "Really no one should have to deal with another person's dirty linen."

Really? This little revolutionary decided all on her own not that laundry day sucks -- a sentiment that holds true to this very day -- but that all people should have the doing of their own underthings?

Similarly, Mrs. Hill the housekeeper is often burdened by Mrs. Bennet's emotional demands. Mrs. Hill has quite enough work to do to fill her day already without having to offer a shoulder to cry on just when the bread is rising. That works. I love that.

This very Mrs. Hill -- overworked, miserable, a character who seems to exist only to be taken advantage of -- is the one who decides near the end of the book that, really, there's not much difference between living as a servant and being a genteel lady. "The end was all the same."

I mentioned this is a happy book, right?

The writing is very, very good. The author has clearly done her research, and it shows without seeming show-offy.

But in the end, this book was just. A. Bummer.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews623 followers
May 16, 2015
Unfortunately I found this to be a stuffy contemporary literary novel in historical clothing, with none of the brio of Austen's own style and little insight to contribute about the characters or story of Pride and Prejudice.

There's not much logic in how the plot of this book fits in with the above-stairs developments of Pride and Prejudice. The action of Longbourn doesn't consist of previously unseen repercussions of those familiar events, nor does it posit any new motives or influences that provide alternate explanations for them. At times, it feels as though Baker's characters are waiting for something to happen in P&P, which only makes sense if you see the plot of P&P as necessary or guaranteed--which you can't, because the characters in that book are frequently surprised by news, choices, and revelations of the past. Wickham appears here as a scoundrel, which we already knew, and the author seems very pleased with her insight that Mr. Collins and Mary would have made a good match--something that I think every reader of P&P perceives and a luscious bit of permanently unresolved dramatic irony on Austen's part. Baker adds backstory for a few major characters that can't feel consequential because it's entirely unmanifested in P&P. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead which you could superficially say interacts with Hamlet the same way this wants to with P&P, this book doesn't provide us with any cleverly interlocking alternate explanations, new plot twists, thematic extension, or characterization.

Baker tries too hard to convince us of her commitment to gritty historical realism; her frequent mentions of chamberpots, menstruation, mud, etc. are cloying and to me seem to lack historical logic. Would someone of that period spend so much time thinking about the dirtier aspects of existence, or would they view them as given, as background? I'd much rather read something that also acknowledges the beauty of historical times, like, for example, the passage in Doomsday Book about the snowy medieval Christmas. Notably, Doomsday Book has plenty of gross scenes--the point is that it has both, whereas this book perhaps unconsciously betrays a modern viewpoint by dealing mostly in grime and unpleasantness. Similarly, there are moments where the protagonist, Sarah, acts in bold or independent ways that seem implausible for a character of her station in that period and unjustified by her personality. They seem like things a modern young woman would do, so they only work if you are putting yourself into the story in her shoes.

I've complained a lot about this novel's relationship to P&P. Can it be considered successful as a freestanding novel? Yes, somewhat, it's just that then it is a novel in a genre that I almost never enjoy. Several reviewers have said that Baker writes like Austen, which I don't think is remotely true. Austen wrote a brisk drama/comedy of manners; this is a ponderous romance. Austen was matter-of-fact and sometimes pert; this is self-serious and tries to assign mystic import to even prosaic life events. Austen requires you to read between the lines of straightforward-seeming dialogue and descriptions to discover a character's motives or mindset. Baker writes paragraph-long descriptions of roadside foliage that are a single sentence. Austen dealt in interpersonal relationships and power imbalances; Baker is keen on totemic objects like James's collection of seashells.

The plot didn't work for me on its own; there were several key moments of this book where something was revealed with great pomp and circumstance that I'd figured out long before, and I honestly couldn't figure out whether Baker meant the scenes as actual plot twists or satisfying resolutions of what the reader had begun to suspect. I found Sarah likable, but there was something so soft-focus and arbitrary about her relationship with James that I didn't care much about them.

Obviously I considered this novel thought-provoking enough to finish, but I didn't find it a success. Read it if you like current woman-oriented literary fiction; skip it if you like Austen's wit.

Review copy received from Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Emma.
205 reviews118 followers
December 27, 2013
You'll think that I'm being silly and hyperbolic when I say books like this are the purpose that historical fiction is meant to serve but I mean it very sincerely. Don't pick this book up wanting to swoon over Elizabeth and Darcy, or expecting the narrative focus to be on the story Austen told in P&P. It's not about that. It's about giving voice to the voiceless, fleshing out the ghosts that would otherwise fade and be shred to pieces before the onslaught of time.

Blue coat, black horse: that was Mr. Bingley. The great tall fellow in the green was Mr. Darcy again. They clipped past the orchard, in profile and oblivious to the housemaids: Sarah felt herself fade. She could see the leaves and branches through her hand; the sun shone straight through her skin.

And now I can't wait to go back through P&P and ferret out all the glimpses of Sarah and her ilk from which Jo Baker spun this tale. Longbourn is simply tremendous. It's the world of Austen made real, Austen in context, with all the mud and blood and shit that comes with that. And it's so deep and beautiful and heart-stoppingly real that I'm in awe. I didn't expect to feel so strongly about Longbourn when I first picked it up... but it's far and away one of the best books I've read in the past year. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,608 reviews2,581 followers
May 30, 2014
Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey is the crude shorthand, but this novel is so much more. I hardly dare say it (Janeites are a fearsome bunch; such talk could get me lynched): Could this be better than the original? Pride and Prejudice, that is. Perhaps better is not the right word, but fuller: Baker’s is a fully convincing and unbiased vision of early nineteenth-century English life, featuring multiple classes and races – and it doesn’t airbrush away unpleasant bodily realities.

Longbourn is (for the most part) meticulously contemporaneous with the action of Pride and Prejudice. A house the size of Longbourn was run by a small band of servants; all Baker has done in the way of invention is to give faces and stories to those previously nameless below-stairs characters – expanded roles for Mr. and Mrs. Hill (the latter both housekeeper and cook); young maids Sarah and Polly; and a new footman with murky origins, James Smith.

Our protagonist, housemaid Sarah, is a feisty heroine from the lineage of both Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre; indeed, the first line is particularly reminiscent of Jane Eyre: “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering.” Like Miss Eyre, Sarah is an eager orphan who turns to books for temporary escape from her troubles; like Lizzie, she faces a similar choice between two very different suitors; and again like Jane, she will set off on a fraught, solitary adventure to secure true love.

Baker builds sympathy for her characters by shifting between third person limited perspectives; usually that point-of-view will be one of the servants’, as in Sarah’s view of Jane Bennet: “She was as sweet, soothing and undemanding as a baked milk-pudding.” But occasionally readers are privy to the thoughts of one of the Bennets themselves; here is Mary, for example: “the distraction of those silly sisters…If they could but think of higher things, of music, religion, good works, instead of officers.”

For the most part, though, we are limited to knowing whatever the servants can overhear or imply. The Bennets’ utter obliviousness to the reality of life for the lower classes is slyly juxtaposed with a growing awareness of the brutality of slavery. Even on the second page Baker shows concern for those “people of color” omitted from Austen’s world: “the sun would be shining on other places still, on the Barbadoes and Antigua and Jamaica where the dark men worked half-naked, and on the Americas where the Indians wore almost no clothes at all.” Footman James is a committed abolitionist, with a copy of Wilberforce by his bedside, and Baker gives a significant role to a new black character, Ptolemy, the Bingleys’ footman (who turns Sarah’s head).

Baker expertly mimics Austen’s trademark use of free indirect speech and witticisms. A prime example is when Sarah is sent out in the pouring rain to fetch decorations for the Bennet girls’ dancing shoes (whereas the original text has the anonymous and passive “the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy”). Sarah never has to open her mouth to issue this deliciously snide response: “The ladies could like the shoe-roses or they could lump them. Indeed, she would rather like it if they lumped them. She rather looked forward to their having to lump them.”

The epigraphs heading each chapter come directly from Pride and Prejudice, but I only found one line of word-for-word lifted dialogue in the main text – eagle-eyed Austenites, correct me if I am wrong, and let me know if you spot the same line I picked up on! [If you search the P&P e-book (free here on Project Gutenberg), you’ll be interested to learn that there are in fact allusions to a Longbourn footman and a serving Sarah, in chapters 7 and 55, respectively.]

Where Longbourn diverges most noticeably from Pride and Prejudice is in its unflinching portrayal of the physical reality of early nineteenth-century life: chilblains, scars, lice, reeking chamber pots, animal slaughter, napkins soaked with menstrual blood, even underarm hair (you mean the Bennet girls had hairy pits?! – say it ain’t so!). Even behind the fine appearances of the Netherfield ball guests, all Sarah can see is “the same old freckles and wrinkles and bad breath and smallpox scars and limping gout...Her envy puffed up into smoke and was gone on the wind.”

Nonetheless, I don’t think there’s anything here that will upset Austen lovers, while there is plenty that should draw in new fans. I think Longbourn might particularly appeal to those male readers who have previously professed that Austen isn’t their cup of tea: who are too jaded and knowing, or just too darn cool, for this chick stuff. They will find that there is just the right level of earthiness here to root the romantic plot in reality. Kudos to Jo Baker, and bon appétit to all you lucky readers who soon get to encounter this terrific novel for the first time.

(A slightly expanded version of this review is at Bookkaholic.)
Profile Image for Nataliya.
745 reviews11.9k followers
July 4, 2022
When Lizzie Bennet went traipsing through the muddy fields¹ mooning over Mr. Darcy, someone had to do wash those muddy petticoats. When Mrs. Bennet was fainting from the strain of arranging suitable marriages for her countless daughters, someone had to fetch the smelling salts.
While the ladies of the Bennet family spent their time in the leisurely fashion of gentlewomen, in music and sewing and art and dancing and attracting promisingly rich husbands, someone had to run the household, cook endless dinners, do laundry, empty the chamber pots, shovel the pig shit, clean the outhouse, run errands, scrub floors, travel to the village and surrounding estates through the rain and mud — and do anything and everything to allow the cream and crop of gentle society to enjoy their leisurely lives that made Austen’s novels such great escapist reading.
“If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”
This is a story of those “someones“, the characters that were lost in the background of the shiny glossy lives of the rich and mighty in the timelessly alluring Pride and Prejudice. Invisible in the refined society and therefore the original book pages, they are allowed to take center stage here.
“Perhaps that was why they spoke instructions at her from behind an embroidery hoop or over the top of a book: she had scrubbed away their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood; she knew they weren’t as rarefied as angels, and so they just couldn’t look her in the eye.”

Unlike Austen’s novel that inspired the book (and upon the familiarity with which the plot of this one hinges), Longbourn lacks the escapist allure of humor and attractiveness. Instead it is serious and often bleak — which makes sense as it is deliberately focused on the unglamorous aspects of life in Austen’s world. (Unglamorous sufficiently to give me enough details about chamber pots and the outhouse and menstrual blood stains to last me for a very long time, really).
“Would she, at some time, have the chance to care for her own things, her own comforts, her own needs, and not just for other people’s? Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?”

Sarah is a young housemaid, an orphan raised in the Bennett’s’ estate of Longbourne. Despite being the same age as Lizzie Bennet and living in her house, Sarah’s life and Lizzie’s life might as well be in different universes. Overworked and tired (because Bennets’ preferred lifestyle and their modest by the rich landowners’ standards means do not always align), Sarah’s concerns are not the leisurely pursuits of respectably rich matrimony but rather the endless house chores and chilblains and blisters from her work, and the knowledge that very little in her life belongs to her. Her destiny is to grow old caring for the needs and wants of others, and she is encouraged to be grateful for this lot in life, to find satisfaction in her duties, to be content with stability that such sad existence brings. But it’s hard to settle for just that, isn’t it?
“This, she reflected, as she crossed the rainy yard, and strode out to the necessary house, and slopped the pot’s contents down the hole, this was her duty, and she could find no satisfaction in it, and found it strange that anybody might think a person could. She rinsed the pot out at the pump and left it to freshen in the rain. If this was her duty, then she wanted someone else’s.”

Going into this book, I expected more or less a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the below-the-stairs point of view. And to a point yes, this story depends on you being familiar with Austen’s book, the plot and the characters. But those characters stay mostly behind the scenes, and the events that mattered so much in Austen’s story are barely consequential in this one. All the Bingley and Darcy dramas are not even noticed; Lydia’s elopement is important only because of sheer disturbance it causes in the domestic life. Otherwise the life below stairs is shaped much more by the everyday life occurrences and the storms in the lives of Pride and Prejudice characters barely cause ripples in the lives of Longbourn bunch.

It’s all just a background noise for the servants who are occupied with more pressing issues.

Of course, some characters end up diverging a bit from Austen’s novel — like it or hate it. I’m not an Austen purist or even her particular fan, so to me it was just fine — but it may irk a few of her more devoted fans with the subtle and not so subtle digs at the characters. Mr. Collins, for instance, is not the appallingly dull human being but a rather average man who is nice to servants. Darcy pops in for half a minute if that. The source of Bingley’s family money is shown to be beyond unsavory and repellent. Mrs. Bennet is certainly more sympathetic and less of a buffoon that she comes off in Austen’s book. And Mr Bennet is revealed to have some secrets that certainly do not paint him in the best light.
“It had been a dreadful miscalculation, she saw that now: that all of them should be unhappy, so that he should not be disgraced.”

The language of the book is also not meant to carry on Austen’s wit and humor and sparkle. Just like the choice to show the grittier and dirtier part of life in the Austen world, the language here is meant to be harsher and rougher and more serious. And the sensibilities are certainly betraying the time it was written in, a couple of centuries after the original.

And I liked it a lot. The more “real” everyday issues of the working people were connecting with me much more than the leisurely dramas of Austen’s novels — perhaps because I can’t really relate to the life of wealth and leisure and lazy mornings and boring afternoons. Jane Austen’s book is lovely and beautiful - but I also love this one as its grittier less refined working companion.

4-ish stars and a plan to reread Pride and Prejudice with thoughts of the lives of those invisible in that novel, quietly working in kitchens and stables and carrying out those ever-present chamber pots.

Recommended by: Nastya
Profile Image for Margaret Sullivan.
Author 8 books69 followers
January 1, 2016
(Reposted from my review at AustenBlog)

The publication of Jo Baker’s new novel Longbourn generated the same sort of excitement as the arrival of a single gentleman of good fortune. It has been described as being a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey. When we heard this premise, we were all admiration. What a brilliant idea! Two of the most wildly popular and well-known popular culture properties–now together! It might be the greatest idea since some genius combined chocolate and peanut butter. The Commercial Publishing Industrial Complex has predictably lost its mind over it; frankly, we are astonished that its publication did not rip open the fabric of the universe, creating a giant black hole that sucked us all into it.

While this soundbyte selling point makes it simple for publishers and booksellers, we think it has done the authoress a disservice. We think Ms. Baker was shooting for something less mercenary and more ambitious: the Wide Sargasso Sea of the Jane Austen oeuvre; by which we mean a paraliterature title that strives for literary achievement as well as, or perhaps even more than, popularity. We have long wondered why no one has written such a novel. Sadly, Longbourn did not work for us, either as ambitious literary fiction or as a P&P/Downton mashup. There is nothing of the elegance of Downton Abbey, and a Pride and Prejudice that we do not recognize.

The story takes place almost entirely belowstairs at Longbourn, domain of the long-suffering Mrs. Hill; the butler, Mr. Hill; the two maidservants, Sarah and Polly; and the footman, James. The foreground story is their melodramas and heartbreak (and there is a lot of both), while the familiar story of Pride and Prejudice unfolds in the background like a dimly heard radio play. Sarah is pretty much the main character. She is fascinated with one of Bingley’s manservants, a freed slave who impresses her with his sophistication and tells her stories of London. Sarah finds James annoying, and she is convinced he is a Bad Man who will cause trouble and wait a minute, haven’t we read this story before?

The link to Pride and Prejudice seems tenuous to us, other than perhaps the romantic triangle. The Bennets could afford more than two maidservants, and it’s silly to say otherwise. The Bateses in Emma could afford to employ a maidservant; surely the Bennets could employ more than two. If Ms. Baker truly wanted to tell the story of the servants of Pride and Prejudice—and link it to the wildly popular Downton Abbey—it would have been better to give the Bennets a fuller complement of servants. If she wanted to write about overworked servants in Austen’s time, don’t give them to the Bennets. Why not the Lucases, for instance? They are certainly involved in the main story; or perhaps another neighbor. If the idea really was that marketable mashup, it would have equal commercial potential marketed as a servant’s story in Jane Austen’s time, set in the world of her novels.

We are probably not the audience for this, being on record as unappreciative of Gritty Realism™. We acknowledge that it existed in that time, and we acknowledge that it is present in Austen’s novels if one looks for it; but Austen’s pen famously did not dwell on guilt and misery, and the darker aspects of her world are sketched in lightly, shadowing the background upon which her characters are drawn. Ms. Baker seems to be determined to inform the reader that life in that time—at least for the servant class—was dark, dingy, dangerous, unpleasant, painful—and there is nothing wrong with that, but if some information is enlightening, then too much becomes a blunt object concussing the reader. (One is sometimes truly stunned by the imagery: for instance, militia officers converge on the Phillips’ house like “lice on a beggar’s head.”) We struggled through this book, constantly pulled out of it by this determination to dunk Austen’s work in a literary mud puddle. It seems to us a subversion of Pride and Prejudice, not a celebration of it. No doubt that is purposeful, but it does not interest us; and marketing it to Austen fans seems disingenuous. There seems to be a determination to make us think ill of Austen’s characters for committing the sin of making work for the servants. If the somewhat sanitized version of Georgian/Regency England portrayed in many Austen film adaptations is overly romantic, wallowing in filth, poverty, and misery has a romance of its own that is equally dangerous.

We still like the idea of a P&P/Downton mashup, but we would have preferred something different: a properly big cast of servants and a jolly, rollicking tale of belowstairs hijinks. There would be work–hard work, sometimes dirty work, and all the squalid details of bodily fluids could have been worked in if absolutely necessary–but more importantly, it would have been fun, and the companion piece that Austen’s “light, bright, and sparkling” masterpiece deserved. Longbourn is ambitious and beautifully written; we wish we could like it, but we cannot.
May 6, 2015
I read five chapters and then I admitted defeat. I threw up my arms through a sea of frothy pink fluff and pushed it aside and emerged, if not a better person, then at least a relieved one with one less cloud in my world.

To be fair, I'm not the audience for any kind of romance except perhaps classics. But I am fascinated with Jane Austen and having recently read A.A. Milne's superlative stage play Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I felt I would like to read more books directly descended from Pride and Prejudice. After Colin Firth is it possible to have too much Darcy? Is it possible to have too much chocolate? Is it possible to have too much candy floss? Yes, to the last, sadly it is. And was. DNF.

A note on the writing. It wasn't Jane Austen. It wasn't A.A. Milne. It wasn't bad in any way. But it was perfectly one-note, shallow, clear and descriptive and left me in no doubt that what I saw was what I got. That's all. Maybe this is par for the genre.

If you enjoy period romances, then you might love the book, this review is my impression and not one that should influence you in any way.
Profile Image for Meredith.
1,887 reviews13 followers
November 21, 2013
The best word to describe this book is unpleasant. It was a very unpleasant reading experience. But I can and will be more specific.

First of all, technically, this is a Pride and Prejudice retelling from the point of view of the Longbourn servants. Good idea, right? I sure thought so. And honestly, there are some very good things in here. I was very interested in hearing what kind of daily tasks made the Bennett lifestyle possible. There's also a few great parts where you really see how much the servants care about each other.

But then. First of all, there's a terrible sexual awakening subplot. I'm sorry, if I wanted to read a romance novel, I would read a romance novel. Second, there's a really long flashback sequence about war, which has nothing to do with Pride and Prejudice at all. If you want to write about the horrors of war, that's fine, but don't just say it's a Pride and Prejudice retelling to increase your audience. That's cheap. Third, for someone who says she loves Pride and Prejudice, the author sure spends a lot of time trying to convince readers that all of those beloved characters are d-bags. Seriously, the only one of the Bennett's who comes out looking OK in this book is Mary. Of course, and I'm sure this wasn't intentional, the main character, Sarah, is not a joy to read about either. Stop whining, you whiner! Fourth, the narrative is really all over the place. One paragraph will be from Mrs. Hill's POV, then suddenly we'll switch to Polly, then to James for a second, and back to Mrs. Hill, then maybe one of the Bennet kids will have a say. Get it together, author! Finally, the love triangle is so ridiculous. Tol is clearly more interesting and fun, and the only reason that Sarah prefers James is to make the (really stupid) plot twist towards the end more shocking/meaningful.

There you have it. I did not enjoy this book, even though I fully expected to. I'm not sure why it's gotten such good reviews, but take it from me-if you want a good servant story, stick with Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey.
Profile Image for The Library Lady.
3,593 reviews524 followers
January 7, 2020
Attention anyone who wants to think of Jane Austenland as pretty-pretty with no blood, sweat, sex (in any form at all) and magical elves to do the housework:

Still with me?

This book includes discussions of soiled diapers and menstrual napkins--well,no washing machines, let alone Pampers or Tampax! And there is a mention of underarm hair, something which clearly should shock any modern man or woman of "normal" proclivities.

Speaking of which, there are sexual practices mentioned in this book that include homosexuality (nothing explicit), masturbation (again, no real details) and out of wedlock sex.

This last horror can apparently can produce {gasp!}PREGNANCY! Gee, they never taught me that in Abstinence Education!

Plus a certain character already known to be slimy by anyone who has read Austen attempts to molest a young servant. Shocking! How terribly, terribly unlike what went on in 19th century England!

And there are servants doing hard, sweaty, smelly, unpleasant work behind the scenes,carefully allowing the Bennetts, the Darcys and the Bingleys to live in their pretty-pretty Austen world.

These are the characters this book focuses on. Baker uses the plot and characters of Austen's book as foils for these people. She is clever in leaving Jane, Elizabeth and the other main characters mainly in the shadows. You can see where we are in the plot without seeing most of the Austen plot, and it's fine, because it's Sarah, Polly, the Hills and the other servants who are the full fleshed characters here.

This is NOT an attempt at writing pseudo-Austen---and most of those books are spectacular failures. What it is is modern historical fiction, starting with the characters and plot of the original book, but just using them as a jumping off point. You could read this not knowing a jot about Pride and Prejudice and enjoy it just as much.

I was going to give this book 4 stars and wanted to give it 4 1/2. But because of the stupid nonsense (including some homophobic crap) I have read among other reviewers here, I am giving this 5 stars.
Profile Image for Wee Lassie.
120 reviews59 followers
February 22, 2023
I loved this book. It's one of the few, if only, retellings of Pride & Prejudice in which you leave liking Mr. Collins far more than Elizabeth Bennet.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,769 followers
December 6, 2013
Three and a Half Stars.

In the Author’s Note at the end of Longbourn, Jo Baker writes,
One final note: in Pride and Prejudice the footman appears just once in the text, when he delivers a note to Jane (page 31 of Volume One, in my Penguin Classics edition). After that, he is never mentioned again.

Well, that is an undeniable fact. But what are we to glean from this tidbit? That Baker found her inspiration from this one tiny glimmer into the world behind the scenes? That Austen was remiss in showing only the “Upstairs” of early nineteenth century English country life? Much has been written about Jane Austen’s omission of socio-political context in her novels, but in the end we are left with the stories as she chose to tell them. Full stop.

In the same author’s note, Jo Baker tells us she has “interfered only so far as the give names to the unnamed—the butler, footman, and the second housemaid.” There ensued a great spluttering of coffee, coughing, and general wiping up. The plot itself depends upon interferences large and small! Early on Mrs. Hill, the Bennet’s cook and housekeeper, enters Mr. Bennet’s library and closes the door. A central twist of the story is predicated on a very mighty interference, indeed.

I’m not convinced that anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice can accurately assess whether Longbourn could stand on its own, a story complete. Well, for heaven’s sake, of course it couldn’t. It wouldn’t exist without Pride and Prejudice. But that’s not really what I mean. I mean that it’s built upon the backs of Austen’s characters. Little has to be done by way of introducing or maintaining this supporting cast, which is what the Bennet femmes et homme and their society neighbors are in this below-stairs account of life at Longbourne. We who know Elizabeth, Darcy and Wickham have already colored between those lines and need little in the way of further fleshing out.

For this first half of this novel, I said a resounding “No. There is no there here.” Longbourn—although far from an Austen pastiche—reads like a meticulously researched and lovingly crafted vignette of servant life in a middle-class Regency home. There seems to be little point beyond showing the difficulties and deprivations of a life in service and to point out that even in Georgian England, people pooped, masturbated and menstruated.

Then the novel enters its stride. Although I never lost the twitch of discomfort that Jo Baker was trying to make up for some absence of verisimilitude in the original, the characters begin to live on their own accord, as if the author herself snipped the ties constraining her to Pride and Prejudice. It’s somewhere around the time Wickham ventures into the kitchen to leer at Polly and we see each servant’s response to his trespass that we fully, finally, enter the world of distinct, complete characters who have more to offer than chilblains and chamber pots.

Baker won me over, however, with Longbourn's enigmatic footman, James Smith. She creates a haunting portrait of a soldier’s experience during Napolean’s “Guerilla” war in Spain and Portugal. Equally moving, though much briefer, is a recounting of Mrs. Hill’s troubles at Longbourn in the era before she became Mrs. Hill. From these points forward, the characters above stairs become more than ciphers and those below stairs develop backstories and backbones.

Jo Baker’s writing, though at times heavy-handed with the metaphors, is lovely. She maintains a formal, dignified diction that feels just right for the period and place, without trying to emulate Austen’s vivacity and wit. She sprinkles in jarring vulgarities and peers inside chamber pots to let us know if they contain solids as well as liquids—all of which seems a bit forced, as if she were trying too hard to distance herself from Austen gentility—but the moments are brief and tolerable.

Longbourn is a very engaging and enjoyable read. The quality of writing is such that I will seek out Jo Baker’s other novels and look forward to her next, though I hope she is finished outfitting 19th century classics with 21st century hindsight.
Profile Image for Erin.
2,960 reviews485 followers
June 13, 2017
I have been a huge fan of Jane Austen since the age of 13 and have throughout the years read different authors interesting interpretations on her well beloved stories. Some have been good and more than a few have been outrageously bad. Despite it all, I just cannot stop myself from continuing to try them all out. That is why I can say with great confidence that if I could give this book 10 stars, I would.

Jo Baker provides readers with a fresh take on the well loved story of "Pride and Prejudice" by giving us the story of those that worked as servants at Longbourn. I was swept into this story right from the first page. Baker's story provides readers with a broader view of what exactly was going on in English society during the events of the original Pride and Prejudice story. As well, the vivid descriptions and imagery just bring to life 19th century England

I am sure that this book will have its critics and all great books do BUT I felt that the servant impressions added greater dimension and life to several characters such as- Mary Bennett, Mr. Collins, and Charlotte Lucas. As well, it stands to reason that what we loved so much about Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett is not going to seem quite as endearing to the servants of Longbourn. In my opinion, this just gives more depth to Austen's characters and makes them human( well, as human as fictional characters can be).

All in all, a great tale that will become part of my permanent book library.
Profile Image for eb.
481 reviews149 followers
June 13, 2013
I adore Jane Austen, and I was dreading reading this take on Pride & Prejudice from the servants' point of view. I thought it was a crass cash-grab on Baker's part, and that I'd spend the entire novel longing to reread P & P. I couldn't have been more wrong! I got entirely wrapped up in the story of Sarah, a servant at Longbourn, and felt impatient even with brief mentions of favorite characters (Jane, Elizabeth), who seemed selfish, boring, and clueless because of their wealth. Crucially, this novel does NOT feel like a gimmick; it's beautiful and literary, and stands on its own--non-fans of Austen will love it too, I think.
Profile Image for Annette.
766 reviews341 followers
August 16, 2022
What attracted me to this story were the lives of the household running the daily routines, the lower classes facing the daily particulars in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars. I was also hoping for a story filled with British humor.

Instead, the story is very descriptive. Whatever humor there is, it is buried by all the descriptions. The characters could be better introduced, progressively instead of throwing many names in one chapter.

Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
797 reviews586 followers
October 19, 2021

Rating (or even thinking about) this book has given me a bit of a dilemma.

It isn't a bad book and some parts were quite interesting - but I'm just not enjoying it. And I'm looking at my physical 'to-read' shelf (yes, I'm such a Goodreader that I do have a physical shelf as well as my virtual ones on Goodreads) There are around 60 books on it - & I want to read at least 58 of them more than I want to finish this book!

Since I was an adult I haven't wanted to be born at any time other than around ten years before I was (it would have been really cool to be a teen in the Swinging Sixties!) I've never thought I was descended from British Royalty or Admiral Nelson! I'm from good farming stock & I guess the best fate for a nineteenth century me would have been a milkmaid. I certainly wouldn't have been a second Elizabeth Bennett!

So while I found the start, showing the very hard life that Sarah (one of the maids) had interesting and thought provoking, my attention did start wandering. Some things like Just seemed unlikely. Then there was one very violent scene, which had me literally drop the book with shock.

So this book would be good book for some readers. Just not this reader.

DNF at 27%

Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 1 book2,823 followers
July 24, 2018
I loved this book - a great retelling, a detailed and atmospheric historical novel, with engaging characters and a brilliant plot. I would highly recommend.
Profile Image for Delee.
243 reviews1,106 followers
October 21, 2013
"What can a woman do, all on her own, and unsupported?" asks Elizabeth. "Work," the maid answers.

I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to keep up with the characters in LONGBOURN without having a re-read of Pride and Prejudice, but luckily there wasn't a need...

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LONGBOURN is a novel based on the servants in the beloved Bennet household- I have to say reading about the Bennet family from the point of view of the people waiting on them hand and foot- made them come off quite spoiled and a little less charming than they did in Pride and Prejudice.

The main characters in THIS story are:

Sarah- A intelligent and bookish servant. Sarah misses the life she had while her parents were still alive, and longs to see the world outside of LONGBOURN someday.

Mrs Hill- A loyal housekeeper charged with the day-to-day running of the household, who keeps a watchful eye on all the goings on in the Bennet's household.

Mr Hill- The aging butler who isn't able to fulfill his duties quite as much as he used to when he was a younger man.

Polly- The youngest female servant. An orphan who has never known any other life other than serving others...but isn't very good at it.


James- The new and mysterious footman. James has piqued the interest of Sarah, but will he let her close enough to learn his secrets?

Fans of the novel- Pride and Predjudice, the TV show- Downton Abbey, and the movie- Gosford Park should love Jo Baker's take on the lives of characters who usually stay silent in the back round.

I received an advanced reader's copy of this novel from First-Reads.
Profile Image for Gary  the Bookworm.
130 reviews127 followers
September 10, 2016
Dirty linen might seem like a unsavory topic in a novel set in Regency England, but when the linen belongs to the Bennet family from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice it makes for good reading. Jo Baker's Longbourn is told from the perspective of the downstairs staff: two house maids, the housekeeper, her butler husband, and a mysterious, newly-hired footman. By modern standards this might seem like a excessive number of servants, but in Nineteenth Century England, five menstruating daughters, not to mention a gaggle of Gardner cousins foisted on the Bennet's for weeks at a time, produce a mountain of laundry for the two beleaguered maids. One day a week is dedicated to it and even the family pitches in: they eat a cold buffet because the maids aren't available to serve in the dining room. The servants sell their labor for the security of a warm bed - sometimes only a pallet on the floor - and regular meals and they enact their revenge in startling ways. When Mr. Hill, the butler, discovers a bit of food stuck to the tines of a fork, he gives it some spit and a shine on his vest before placing on the table. These servants depend on each other for kindness and understanding - even sex -although that shared comfort doesn't preclude an occasional boink with one of their "betters." The airing of the family's metaphorical dirty laundry is front and center in this alternate reality.
1905 fancy french knickers photo 2542g.jpg
Baker envisions a plausible back story for the Bennet family - a kind of foreshadowing for Lydia's hushed-up fall from grace and a rationale for the troubled Bennet marriage. She basks in the ironic implications of Mr. Bennet's efforts to save his licentious daughter's reputation while remaining indifferent to the needs of his illegitimate offspring. All of Austen's characters look less attractive when they're viewed through the eyes of their servants. To them Lizzy is known more for her soiled petticoats (all those muddy walks!) than her sparkling wit, and Mrs. Bennet isn't just a hysterical blabber mouth, she is also addicted to narcotics for the treatment of her infamous nerves. Two notable exceptions are sycophantic cousin Collins, and Mary, the pedantic middle sister. Here they are portrayed sympathetically which made me reconsider the delight I took in Austen's satirical skewering.

Critics have often chastised Austen for ignoring the turbulence of her times. Baker fills that void by bringing the Napoleonic Wars vividly to life. The flogging of a soldier isn't just a juicy bit of gossip to be chewed on by the gentry. In Baker's hands it becomes a powerful symbol for the hardships and injustices endured by the serving class, whose survival depends on the whim of those they serve. We can thank her for imagining fully realized lives for them, and for sharing her vision without detracting from the magic of Austen's masterpiece. Add a star if you are very familiar with Pride and Prejudice and are not afraid to think outside the box.
Profile Image for Simona B.
892 reviews2,985 followers
February 7, 2017

The premise is interesting. It is. I also enjoyed the first part; but after a while, the story started to drag on and on, and I started to not see the point of it anymore.

Some of the things that happen are completely -or almost- inconsequential. In addition, the story supposedly focuses on Sarah, one of the two housemaids of the Bennets' household. The thing is, sometimes the focus shifts, at length and in detail, to the Bennets themselves, which, I think, was rather useless if our concern is the below-stairs world. Long story short: the book could have been half of what it actually is. I was bored. I was uninterested.

•I found Sarah to be excruciatingly dull. I wanted to care about what happened to her, but I didn't. She gave me no reason to.

Mrs Hill's secret left me speechless. I loved it, though I didn't love how it was handled because again, Baker's storytelling and I didn't exactly connect. When I started the book, knowing it was about the lives of the servant of Longbourn, I imagined something like this, I think, a plot like the one hidden in Mrs Hill's past. Not that I expected it and wouldn't have been happy with anything else, but it didn't surprise me that something of that sort was at work here. But again, the focus was wrong: it is treated almost as an incidental fact with little importance. I would have loved to dive deeper into Mrs Hill's mind, for example, or to know how James dealt with throughout his life.

➽ The potential was all there, as I see it; if only it had been written differently, it would have been a great book. But the way things are, I don't think I'd recommend it.
Profile Image for Sian.
71 reviews2 followers
May 30, 2013
I liked P&P but not a huge Jane Austen fan so didn't go into this feeling all precious about its predecessor.
I really wanted to enjoy this book but just couldn't. The swearing is totally out of place, the liberties taken with the characters from P&P are unbelievably awful (sorry) basically feels like Jo Baker is trying desperately to be controversial but it doesn't work. The main character is very likeable and if this had been a stand alone novel about servants at the time (minus the sweating and poo) it could have worked. The pretty descriptions of little details such as the wind and flowers seem to have been shoehorned in to make the novel Have a more thoughtful feel. It's a real shame so much potential but falls flat on all accounts!
Profile Image for Bronwyn Mcloughlin.
554 reviews10 followers
February 24, 2014
This is an historical novel, a well crafted one, that gives Austen's original a context. Pride and prejudice is vaguely set during the era of the Napoleonic wars, in Regency England. Beyond the necessity of the militia as an essential plot device, there is little to establish a time period or political context. This not a failing : the intent in P & P is to examine, play with, lampoon and explore the personalities, social niceties and constrictions of a certain family, a certain class of people in a certain size town. And Austen, indisputably, is a witty and observant master of the art.

What Baker has provided is the bigger picture. This novel grounds the Bennets. It reinforces the characters Austen carefully constructed, through the fleshing out of their interactions with their servants. It gives life and personality to the nameless, silent cast who ensure that the untidy Lydia is presentable at Meryton, who ensure that food is on the table when Bingley comes to visit, who wait in the rain to bring the ladies home after a ball. It adds another dimension to our knowledge about the Bennet household and the wider world in which they live. It is not a romantic world: it is hard and sad and unfair. While the Bennet girls are constrained by the niceties of expectations about what a woman is expected to be, and how her life should unfold, their servants' lives are subject to the vicissitudes of life. Mrs Hill surrenders a child and submits to a life that will maintain appearances, but ultimately prove soulless. Sarah loses her family before she is added to the Longbourn staff, and then finds herself shunted between households as she seeks to fashion her own life. James Smith endures the evils of the Peninsula Campaign only to be cast in the role of deserter by a villainous sergeant and to suffer accordingly. There is no justice, no equality, no remonstrance. Life is rarely lovely and satisfaction comes mostly from a gruelling job well done, a full belly and a warmish bed.

It's a warts and all retelling of the obverse of P & P. The detail is inked in such a way that its inclusion is artless and necessary without appearing to be an obvious history lesson. It is assimilated with the story; it is not heavy handed, and is entirely believable. To ignore the sometimes unpleasant necessities of life is to remain as deluded as Mrs Bennet and her ilk, and while P & P was written for a different intent and an audience who in the initial years of its release, understood the implied realities of country house life, it is an asset for current day audiences to understand what life at Longbourn entailed.

Very enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Meredith (Austenesque Reviews).
892 reviews313 followers
December 10, 2013
TYPE OF AUSTENESQUE NOVEL: Minor Character, Retelling

TIME FRAME: Covers the same timespan as Pride and Prejudice with a couple of months after

MAIN CHARACTERS: Sarah (maid), Polly (younger maid), Mr. and Mrs. Hill (butler and housekeeper), James Smith (new, mysterious footman), Ptolemy Bingley (footman at Netherfield)

WHY I WANTED TO READ THIS NOVEL: This book was described by many as a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey...enough said! ;) In all seriousness, I love seeing our beloved Pride and Prejudice retold from a different perspective. Meeting and spending time with the servants of Longbourn greatly intrigued me.


Impressions of Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham: I loved seeing what the servants thought of these two Longbourn newcomers. Mr. Collins is their future master and at first they fear his disapproval. But once they meet him, rather than laugh at his ridiculousness, they feel pity and sympathy towards him and his lack of understanding and guidance. Wickham, on the other hand, they don't give him any sympathy at all! Sarah, James, and Mrs. Hill know he's a rat...they can smell it!

Life Downstairs: Working from five in the morning to eleven at night, callouses and chilblains on your hands, never-ceasing list of chores and duties – Jo Baker did a remarkable job of depicting the life of a gentry servant. The authenticity or her depiction felt like she knew firsthand of their toils.

Evocative Prose: This was my first time reading something by Jo Baker, her style of writing is very captivating and descriptive. With such vivid detail and tangible visuals, this novel easily lends itself to being made into a movie.

Mrs. Hill: My favorite character in this novel was Mrs. Hill. Working for the Bennet's since their nuptials, she has seen it all, suffered through it all with them. And unknown to mostly all who surround her, she is tormented by her own tragic pain and heartbreak. Such a strong, intelligent, and admirable character. I would have loved to have spent more time with her, seen more of the story from her perspective, and learn more of her thoughts and emotions.

The Portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet: I'm sure growing up with servants to take care of all your needs makes one become accustomed to their services and compliance. While Elizabeth shared her novels with Sarah and often offered her kind words, I was disappointed to see her treat Sarah with some selfish inconsideration and thoughtlessness. Elizabeth's generous heart and sympathetic nature seemed to be missing in this novel. I see Elizabeth being akin to Lady Sybil, not Lady Mary!

Our Sojourn into the Napoleonic Wars: About two-thirds through this tale we take a break from present day and travel back two years and experience some time on the battlefront in Spain and Portugal with the Bennet's footman, James. While well-written and depicted in great detail, I must admit I was not very fond of these chapters. Maybe because they were just a tad too dark, too wretched, and too much removed from the world of Jane Austen.

Scenes at Pemberley: I don't want to give anything away, but suffice to say Sarah's actions towards the end of the novel and Elizabeth's and Mr. Darcy's response to them didn't ring true. Elizabeth, is again portrayed in an unfavorable light, and the resolution between Sarah and her hero just felt a little hurried and unsatisfying.

In the end, this story did not feel much like a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey. A more apropos description might be - the darker, grittier, and less “sparkling” side of Pride and Prejudice. With Longbourn, Jo Baker bravely picks up her pen and tackles the “guilt and misery” Jane Austen studiously avoided dwelling on in her novels.

Austenesque Reviews
Profile Image for Tim.
Author 29 books16 followers
April 24, 2015
There is an ocean of Austen fan fiction out there, and no book is more extended than Pride and Prejudice. We love to read what happens to Elizabeth and Darcy, whether it's her doughty fight against the undead or how they deal with truly-dead bodies at Pemberley.

This book would stand with the best of them. Our hopes are dashed and restored and dashed again. We get love, redemption, missteps, the vile Wickham, and not knowing whether there will be a happy ending until the very end. And the writing! Jo Baker's cold mornings make my hands hurt just to read them.

But this book goes beyond great fan fiction, and here's why:

It takes place mostly during the same time period as P&P, but downstairs: it's about the servants. Jane Austen gave us the restrained, arch, inner life of women of heart, soul, and mind, finding their way in a society that devalues them. Jo Baker gives us the struggle, toil, and worry of people with heart, soul, and mind, in a society where even our beloved Elizabeth finds them almost invisible.

The human stories are the heart of the book. But Jo Baker also answers questions we may never have thought to ask: when Elizabeth arrives, muddy-hemmed at Netherfield, who cleans her clothes? In a world without indoor plumbing, what happens to the shit? And when Mr Bennet escapes to his library, who has to cope with his wife? The book is structured to parallel P&P; as Baker said in an interview, "When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it's prepared downstairs in Longbourn."

For me, she gives just the right amount of detail about housekeeping practices of the early 1800s. I now know that when you slaughter a pig, it's time to make soap. And I've seen it done. But I couldn't possibly do it myself.

Another thing: Books in the "canon" are necessarily contained. But here, the outside world plays a role. Servants, after all, know things, and are affected by events, which young women are protected from ever hearing about. This expands the scope of the novel. In Mansfield Park, for example, Fanny asks about slavery and is met with stony silence. Here, we learn that one of Bingley's footmen, Ptolemy Bingley, was born a slave—and we readers, with our 21st-century perspective, wonder if he's Bingley's half-brother. In P&P, the officers of Wickham's regiment, quartered at Meryton, flirt and attend balls. In this book, there is a war going on, and it affects our characters even as the Bennet girls are insulated from its horrors.

Oh: and we learn seriously juicy backstory about some of our favorite characters.

It's a joy to read, an homage, a tour-de-force. If you're an Austin fan (and you should be) it's a great read.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,777 reviews1,261 followers
August 26, 2018
This story tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the servant’s in the Bennett’s household; the stories are told in parallel with every overlap between the two worlds exactly based on the book.

A brilliant book – compelling its own right but outstanding due to the alternate side of Pride and Prejudice that it presents, not just the poverty and the war but even in some of the characters (e.g. Mr Collins is a more sympathetic character to the servants, not to blame for his own inheritance but pre-judged by the Bennett’s; Mary is presented as a more complex character, desperately in love with Mr Collins and also for her mother’s attention and favour which she only gets when the other girls have departed; there is a small vignette of the post marriage Elizabeth forced to be more conventional out of hew own gratitude and love for Darcy) and even the servant’s take on what actually matters in the life of their masters (Darcy barely figures whereas impressing Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins, given they will ultimately be masters of Longbourn is of much greater import).

Highly recommended to all lovers of Jane Austen.

If you are not a lover of Jane Austen then I am unable to relate to your literary tastes.
Profile Image for nastya .
419 reviews258 followers
October 21, 2021
The one good thing about today was that it would soon be over.

This novel is smart and it’s angry. It's about servants in Pride and Prejudice. In Sarah, James and Ptolemy we get great characters that critisize class in different ways.

Sarah is a daughter of a learned parents who taught her reading and then died. And if by chance you don't have relatives who’ll take you in (Jane Eyre, David Copperfield), the only way is down to the poorhouse. No upward mobility in one generation, especially for women. So Sarahs of that world would live and die in their place. Ptolemy showcasing the legacy of colonization and acknowledgement of slavery in that cozy world. And James is a soldier in the war that Austen never mentions and feels almost clueless about and also .

This novel never tries to imitate Pride and Prejudice, it’s in conversation with it, often asking uncomfortable questions. And can you imagine reading a witty story about servants washing Bennet’s underclothes with blood and sweat stains and their chamber pots? Yes it's not as witty and funny as the original, but try to be when your hands are constantly bleeding from frequent washing clothes in lye. I thought the tone suited the story perfectly. It’s like this book stripped the artifice and we saw real humans underneath all the silks and dancing shoes with roses on it.

Also whenever Baker touches upon the original story, she adds layers and shows events from a different point of view. For example, the way Bennets hate Mr Collins and every servant is on the best behaviour and shows their skill, because he is their next employer. The way this book adds layers to the silly Mrs Bennet, who spent her whole life trying to give an heir and being a disappointment to her entire family, who also think her stupid.
And yet, Mrs. Hill thought, having been worn threadbare by all those pregnancies and torn by all those confinements, with all those lost teeth and all that shed blood and a loose belly now to lug around

Lizzy’s selfishness and self-centeredness in times where every other person had to do their duty.
And still in one little way Sarah is freer than Lizzy
Elizabeth came close now, and grasped Sarah’s hands, still clutching the sewing; the needle pricked Sarah’s skin so that when her mistress came to take up her needlework again, she would see that it was spotted with dark blood.
“But where will you go, Sarah? What can a woman do, all on her own, and unsupported?”
“Work,” Sarah said. “I can always work.”

This novel is a love letter to working class.

And yes there’s a love story, because the original is a love story and its another way to contrast how rich people courted and fell in love and how the very poor did.
Girls like her, and men like him—nobody looked askance at a big belly at the altar, nobody cared so long as it was under plain calico or stuff, and not silk.

And in my opinion, it’s a fanfiction of Pride and Prejudice the same way Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is.

And still in the end this is a deeply romantic book, that has one of the most romantic scenes in fiction:
And then one crisp still day, when Sarah went to lift the pail, she found that it was empty, and when she walked out down to the paddock she saw a row of nappies flapping white on the line, like a ship’s signal flags, an unconditional surrender; James was pegging out the last of them, and when he saw that he was watched, and who watched him, he looked a little sheepish, but finished hanging out the linen squares.
“That’s kind,” she said, coming close.
“Your hands looked sore.”
Sarah could not account for it herself, but her eyes welled up and her nose prickled, and she was obliged to turn away and pick up the basket. They walked side by side back up to the house, and she felt, for those brief moments, a lightness and an ease that she only realized afterwards was simply happiness.
Profile Image for Laura.
750 reviews270 followers
January 23, 2023
I loved this book so much. I never wanted it to end, or I’d have finished it much sooner.

This basically tells part of the story of Pride and Prejudice, from the POV of the servants at Longbourn, where Jane and Elizabeth live, but for the most part, it is Sarah’s story. Sarah is a ladies maid as well as a house maid because the Bennet family only has a few servants. So she looks after Jane and Elizabeth, as well as doing much of the cleaning, laundry, errands, etc. for the house.

I had started this book a couple of times in the past and couldn’t get past the first few pages, which give a very gritty description of housemaid’s work in the early 1800s. I read to escape, and didn’t know if such a story was for me, but Katie on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/c/BooksandThi...) recommended it this time, so I soldiered on. I’m so glad I did.

This story isn’t the fairytale that P&P was. It feels to me like a very well-researched and more realistic retelling. It’s a wonderful work of historical fiction. It’s beautifully written and especially suited to reading in the winter, since much of the story takes place then, and the descriptions of the landscape, etc. will sweep you away.

IMO, Sarah’s story is more interesting than Jane’s and Elizabeth’s. It is more realistic, for one thing, and Jo Baker really brings the life of a housemaid up close and personal. It was hard work and long hours in exchange for very little money and barely any time off, but yet, there are so many points of light in this too. There are two young men who come to be important in Sarah’s life, and we follow her as she tries to learn more about them while remaining caught within the tight framework of life as a female servant during this time.

Her story is moving and captivating and the writing keeps the reader firmly in that time and place. The audio version was also so wonderfully performed by Emma Fielding. It’s very hard to choose which I liked best: the writing, the story, or the narration. I think if I had to choose, I would go with the prose. It was so beautiful that even the dark parts of the story made for enjoyable reading.

This book deserves much higher than a 3.64 rating. It isn’t always G rated like P&P, but it isn’t salacious either, it’s just a much more realistic portrayal of life than the original. It’s definitely not all flowers and sunshine, but I really enjoyed it, and never wanted to turn the last page. As much as I love P&P (and really enjoyed rereading the original in conjunction with this), this book deserves to sit on the same shelf next to Austen’s work. And I don’t say that lightly. I hope you read it, and love it as I did.
Profile Image for Dianna.
1,869 reviews33 followers
August 26, 2013
The good: I found this to be a beautifully written and well-imagined re-telling of Pride and Prejudice. I enjoyed seeing what a servant's day would be like, and the "behind-the-scenes" look at a rich family's life. I liked Sarah as a character and it was easy to root for her.

The bad: Lots of yucky/evil things were discussed, and although they generally weren't described in gory detail (thank you), it was just too much.

The ugly: I understand that servants and soldiers had to deal with dirty and scary things, I really do, and I understand that Jane Austen pretty much ignored all of that. But I feel like Ms. Baker was trying her very best to insert every sort of darkness imaginable here, and it was so much it quickly became unbelievable, almost laughable. We have sex outside marriage; illegitimacy; a child predator; rape/prostitution; murder; homosexuality; underarm hair; terrible language; torture; venereal disease; slavery; drinking; constant mentions of bodily functions and bathrooms; blackmail.

Conclusions: I honestly wish that I hadn't read this. The writing was excellent, but the author's choice of focus left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps that was her point, but I didn't enjoy it, and I wish that she had been more sensitive and discreet, which would have been in better keeping with the time anyway.

I received a copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads.
Profile Image for Kathryn Class.
171 reviews5 followers
December 4, 2013
Have you ever thought an author was a good writer, but you didn't like the story they were telling? That's how I feel about this book. The author is good at writing (except for some places that had lengthy and very detailed descriptions. I'm not too interested in that, unless it's historical fiction. That's when I want all the nitty gritty details - of the actual events.)
I don't like how she made the Bennett family seem shallow and ... I don't know... It just seed like the author wants to knock down Austen fans' love for this story. She wanted to put the harsh realities in there and make sure that we understand that they had people slaving away for them and that the Bennett's didn't take much notice, except for Jane, who was always very kind, gentle and sweet. I hoped to like it, but in the end, I didn't.
Profile Image for Kate Forsyth.
Author 88 books2,318 followers
August 15, 2013
What a brilliant premise this book has! Did you ever wonder – when reading Pride & Prejudice - about the lives of the servants toiling away quietly downstairs? No, me either. Jo Baker did wonder, however, and from that imagining has spun a beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching tale. Do not expect the wit and charm of Jane Austen; do not expect the well-beloved characters to be lauded. In fact, most of the cast of Pride & Prejudice come off badly – some are selfish and narcissistic, others merely oblivious. Do expect to have your understanding of the world of Jane Austen turned upside down and inside out, and made richer and truer as a result. Longbourne is driven by a strong sense of social justice, and we see just how hard life in Regency times could be for the poor and the weak. Much as I love Jane Austen, I always wondered why we heard nothing of the political turmoil of her times, nothing about the impassioned debate over slavery, nothing about the Napoleonic wars, nothing about the Luddites and the costs of the Industrial Revolution. Jo Baker has attempted to engage with many of these gaping holes in Jane Austen’s world, and has achieved a work of great beauty and serious intent. Longbourne caused an international bidding war and has already sold film rights, and I can certainly see why.
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