Friday, October 18, 2013

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Many, many authors have tried to capture the genius that is Jane Austen (and more specifically, the delight that came from the characters in Pride and Prejudice).  But Longbourn by Jo Baker isn’t an Austen rip-off.  It isn’t even a story that tries to answer the question “What happened after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy got married?”  Instead, Baker has told the story of the Bennet household from the point of view of a rather unlikely character: the Bennet’s housemaid, Sarah. 

Sarah (about Ms. Elizabeth Bennet’s age) has been with the family since she was a little girl.  She does everything that is expected of a housemaid including: soaking and scrubbing muddy petticoats, feeding the pigs, emptying chamber pots and washing the never-ending supply of dishes being used by a family of seven.  She does not complain. But she does wonder what it would be like to live a life where no one expected you to do anything and you could act on your own free-will. 

The joyous thing about this novel is that we see only glimpses of the Bennet family; a line of conversation here and there, but not much more.  The pages are filled with Sarah’s daily activities and those of the other staff: Mr. Hill and the housekeeper Mrs. Hill, the young housemaid Polly and a new hired man, James, who has a shadowy past.  There is little here of Jane’s pining for Bingley or Elizabeth’s annoyance with Darcy.  Sarah slowly sets off down a path towards her own romance but will she end up with the mysterious James or Mr. Bingley’s handsome and charming servant Ptomely? 

Baker takes us with Sarah on her journey from young lady to woman and we get to see just how much she longs for a world outside of service.  We see her set off with Elizabeth to Kent to visit the Collinses and her amazement at the metropolis that is London.  When she is given the opportunity to leave Longbourn and serve at Pemberly, will the grand house be the new responsibilities and distractions she needs?  Will she marry in order to get out of service?  Or will she go a direction all her own without the help of her benefactors and friends? 

Longbourn by Jo Baker is a fun and new twist for even the staunchest Jane Austen fans.