Austen’s masterpiece Pride and Prejudice seems finished, but Jo Baker’s Longbourn takes you downstairs into the lives of the Bennet family’s servants. Baker focuses on a housemaid, Sarah, who is stuck in a love triangle of her own between two footman: the mysterious James and the worldly Ptolemy.
Originally published: 2013, USA
Rating: 2 = At Your Own Risk
*Two of my 2014 New Years Resolution Goals!* — Modern Fiction (since 2010) and Modern Women (woman author since 1950)
Set in Regency England, Longbourn follows the servants at Longbourn, the estate of the famous Bennet family from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. While all of the servants are characters, the focus is on Sarah, one of the Bennets’ housemaids. Sarah is around Elizabeth and Jane’s ages and came to work for the Bennets as an orphaned child. Just as Lizzy and Jane are having to deal with their suitors, Sarah finds herself intrigued by two footmen: the quiet, mysterious James who was just hired at the Bennets and the bold Ptolemy who works for the Bingleys but has dreams of going into business for himself. While the familiar cast of Austen’s characters parade through the novel, Sarah must make important life choices and decide to pursue either James or Ptolemy.
James was by far the most interesting character. Initially a mystery for everyone in the novel—aside perhaps from Mr. Bennet who hired him—James is reserved and careful in his duties around Longbourn. The reader is thankfully privy to some of his thoughts, or his characterization would be very uneven. As it is, Baker does an excellent job of fleshing out the character of James, making him easily the most likable, sympathetic, and deepest character in the novel. Instead of being an easy male type (like the prince or the rake, of which there are many examples in the novel), James becomes a real person for the reader. Part of what helps with his realism is that Baker spends the most time describing his life before Longbourn, a luxury no other character is afforded in the same way. It is clear that James is a favorite of the author as well.
While I do have many good things to say about each of the male characters in the novel (they are much stronger and more interesting than the female characters), I have to point out Ptolemy because here is finally a depiction of a man of color in the Regency era. Ptolemy is the Bingleys servant, but aspires to open up his own tobacco shop. This recognition of people of color in England at this time is nice, and Baker does a good job to not draw to much attention to the fact that she has done this. She also does not take this opportunity to make any big social statement of the times, but her execution of the character is solid and not stereotypical.
By focusing her novel on the servant class, Baker has the opportunity to create darker stories for her characters. She even is able to make some of Austen’s characters a bit nastier, like Wickham. One particularly nice choice Baker made is in including a fairly lengthy segment with the British troops in the Napoleonic Wars. While Austen’s novels feature an array of military men, she rarely gets into much of the details of battle (with Persuasion being the most military of her novels). While Austen’s omission of these details is not odd (she was dealing with upper class people after all), Baker is able to expand on historical events like war by focusing on people who would have been infantrymen, not officers. In a way, Baker’s darker plot focus is more practical and helps to round out the historical time period of both her and Austen’s novels.
What Didn’t Work:
While there were some strong male characters in Longbourn, the female characters were lacking. Sarah, the main character of the novel, was not very relatable once her personality shone through. In the beginning, the reader falls into her shoes through descriptions of the hard work she does, but as a person Sarah is childish, whiny, and selfish. Having been orphaned at a young age, Sarah is lucky to be working as a servant in a decent house; however, she does not realize this and pines for another life. She is not at the bottom of the heap by any means, although her life does involve a lot of physical labor. Sarah seems to care for Polly, the younger housemaid from a similar background, but Sarah does not take a sisterly role and Polly’s character fades as the story progresses. Sarah is believable in most of her scenes with Ptolemy and James as she gets to know them, but her obsession with one of them for about half the novel is pretty painful to watch. When her love goes missing for a time, Sarah is reduced to a selfish child who has lost a favorite toy and begs everyone (no matter how improper it is for her to address them) to give the toy back to her.
While many of the characters are well fleshed out and interesting, others are quite inconsistent in the way Baker portrays them. Sarah is one, of course, as she is depicted as self-sufficient in the first half of the novel (in her work, teaching Polly, dealing with Ptolemy), but as a selfish, irresponsible character in the latter half of the novel. It could be argued that love changed her, but a strong love would make the character shift go the other way around. Aside from Sarah, there is also Polly, who begins as the obvious little sister of the group who is still learning her work and finding her place in life. But that is also where Polly ends. She doesn’t have to transform into a beautiful butterfly of a fully-realized woman at the end of the novel, but a little character growth shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Odd Sexual Moments
I don’t want to mislead you, this is not a bodice-ripper sexy-time romance book, but it does have a handful of sexual moments. While it is silly to deny that sexuality existed in the Regency era, many of these moments feel forced and awkward. It doesn’t help that they mostly have to do with Sarah. In one, Sarah finds herself thinking of the man she loves while trying to fall asleep in the bed she shares with Polly, so Sarah touches herself. While I’m not against masturbation in literature, this moment was awkward (I mean, Polly can probably tell something is up) and comes out of nowhere to do nothing really for the character. The only possibility is that this scene is preparing the reader for the idea Sarah may want to have sex with her man at some point, but there are other ways that are less forced to make that clear. Also, when Sarah is travelling to London on the back of the carriage, a random street boy sticks his hand up her dress and between her thighs. This incident lasts for about 2 sentences, and there are other ways to let the reader know that London (and the outside, unchaperoned world) is a dangerous place for a young woman. Sex is a powerful tool in literature, but when not executed properly can feel forced and awkward, as most of the sexual moments in Longbourn do.
While I admire Baker’s bold step to take on Austen’s famous Bennets and add depth to the Regency era, with the unrelatable main character and plot and character inconsistencies, I cannot say that I would recommend this book highly. Some of you may enjoy it—and if this review makes you curious, go for it—but borrow it from your local library and don’t set your hopes too high.