Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn tells the story of those who served the Bennet household. While Mr and Mrs Bennet commit themselves to the task of marrying off their five daughters, a quite different story unfolds below stairs.
Jo Baker, already an upcoming literary star, has penned the tale that Austen never revealed. Mrs Hill, the Bennet housekeeper, remains the central figure below stairs in the servant’s quarters, but Baker has embellished and added characters to assist Mrs Hill in her duties. Sarah, the maid, becomes the heroine of the story with Austen’s famous characters fading into the background.
Rather than Elizabeth being the heroine for scampering about the countryside with her petticoats six inches deep in mud, Sarah is the heroine for having to wash them out. Elizabeth’s spontaneous, heady behaviour is not revered by Baker, but rather shown to be quite an imposition on poor Sarah.
In Austen’s great novel much is made of the Gardiner’s three-week tour of Derbyshire. It is of course during this tour that Elizabeth discovers Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s great estate. But while the Gardiners and Elizabeth are enjoying all the pleasures that the countryside has to offer the four Gardiner children have been left at Longbourn to cause havoc as they run through the Bennet home with all the energy young children can muster. Sarah’s workload has increased and her hands are blistered from washing out the nappies of the youngest Gardiner child.
The original Austen story of Elizabeth and Darcy continues in the background, but it is Sarah and James Smith, the mysterious footman, who are the heroes of this story. Their love story blossoms as the Bennet girls go about their business of finding husbands.
Longbourn has caused quite a stir with Focus Features having already secured the film rights to the book. Baker’s new twist on a much-loved story is beautifully told staying true to the original Pride and Prejudice story, which remains the undercurrent for her tale below stairs. With so many retellings of Austen’s most famous novel it is enlightening to read a book that looks at unexplored territory. Baker remains respectful of the original with her reimagining of life below stairs steeped in Regency times and traditions. She has taken hints from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice such as the flogging of a soldier and turned these small clues into her own story.
Longbourn is a fascinating and compelling read which shines a new light on the Bennet household. The beauty and intelligence of the writing makes this book a must read for all Austen devotees.
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