I have been so excited by two books this year: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (which I am almost done reading), and Longbourn by Jo Baker. I was so fortunate to be offered an ARC of Longbourn! It was a wonderful, engaging and lovely read.
Ms. Baker's beautiful writing (and much like Kent's Burial Rites) evokes a gorgeous and atmospheric sense of place: : Longbourn, the family home of the Bennet family is located in the picturesque county of Hertfordshire in the English countryside outside of London. The story of the servants of Longbourn begins with one of these exquisite passages of Baker's, a word painting really, that describes in lush and fragrant detail, the area around the estate, from the sheep on the hills, to the Bennet daughters asleep in their beds. Each chapter begins with a line from Pride and Prejudice, giving subtle hints of the time setting. Baker has taken the lovely old bones of Pride and Prejudice, and re-clothed them with a different skin. And while the time is completely contemporary to P&P, Baker really let's us know the people she portrays in her novel, in a way that is much less guarded than the original.
We are introduced to the hard working house maid, Sarah, who is close in age to the Bennet girls, and almost considers them friends. The family lends her books and gives Sarah their cast off gowns, but of course, she will never be actual friends with these young women, because in the English class system at this time, proper young ladies were not friends with the servants. I would highly recommend actually reading Pride and Prejudice first, if you have never done so, it really enriches your experience with what Ms. Baker has done here. Sarah's story, and that of her fellow servants, mirrors that of the Bennet family. In fact, we see that the servants living at Longbourn are a family of sorts.
Ms. Baker is able to address issues that Miss Austen couldn't even dream of discussing this directly in her own novels, although they were definitely issues that were spoken of privately and secretly at the time. The use of slaves and the abolitionist movement among the county's families, illegitimate children, homosexuality, and even addiction is spoken of throughout this novel. Ptolemy Bingley is a favorite servant of the senior Mr. Bingley from their West Indies sugar cane plantation, and one can't help but wonder if he IS a Bingley, and not just in name. Sarah has never met a black man before, but she is both impressed with his physical beauty as well as his regal bearing and charming personality. Sarah is young (about 15) and is learning about men and women and the attractions between them, via the Bennet girls romantic antics and courtships, as well as the young men she meets herself:: Ptolemy, Mr. Wickham, Mr. Darcy, and James Smith, the latest servant addition to the Bennet's household. Jame Smith is introduced as a shadowy, mysterious figure, but not a menacing one, a welcome one. And Sarah, sensitive, intelligent and curious, is intrigued.
I absolutely loved this novel. I am a big Jane Austen fan, but not one to read the many "sequels" and take offs inspired by her works. In fact, I did read Austenland (Shannon Hale) when it came out five or so years ago., but was sort of bored with it. I want to escape too, but that as a plot does not interest me. Nor do books like Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (Linda Berdoll), which are merely new takes on the same characters in the books: I understand that they are beloved by many, and we want to know what happens after the last page, but this kind of fan fiction does not keep my interest: I only want to "hear" Miss Austen's voice, and that cannot be duplicated. But what Ms. Baker does here is so very different, in her imagining a completely new cast of characters, not just cut out servants standing in the background waiting to interact, with no real hearts of their own. Ms. Baker gives each and every one a story, a past, hopes, joys and problems, of course; fleshing them out in a realistic and relate-able manner. This is the kind of novel that causes me to read aloud to my completely disinterested husband, and he listens, because whether or not he can relate or appreciate what I'm reading, he can see that I am in love with the prose and the story.
This book made me cry--and that's a good thing. It was a very moving story, and I couldn't wait to pick the book up again after a break from it. This one will definitely be on my list of favorite for now on. And I will definitely be reading more Jo Baker in the future! What a happy discovery!