I’m always nervous when I hear of a new author writing a spinoff of a classic novel. So few ever do justice to the original. But if you loved Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and who doesn’t – you will love Jo Baker’s new novel Longbourn. While I’ll classify this as a historical romance, Baker’s novel will show you everything about the Bennet’s household that Austen left out of her romance. As well as much more about the reality of the times that those beloved Bennet sisters lived in. All without tainting the original classic. In fact, I found it rather enhanced it for me. Such a nice surprise.
Longbourn’s heroine is Sarah. Sarah’s life as a maid for the Bennet’s is hard. Her hands are chapped. Her feet are cold. And her work is never ending. She is sure that this is all her life will ever be and she longs for what is beyond the roads of Hertfordshire. (As I type this, it sounds like every 21st century teenager so maybe not much has changed in 200+ years.) Baker doesn’t just tell us Sarah’s story, we share her work. We feel her toil. And just when you think your spirit has been broken by her labors we experience how her world changes.
The hero is James, the footman – I know, I didn’t remember a footman either. (See page 31 of Volume One in Penguin Classics edition according to Baker). James has a secret. You’ll guess the premise of his secret early, but it is the details that you want. Yet Baker knows how to build tension; she makes you wait for it. And you are rewarded with a riveting story that is heroic, sad, and life-changing.
Besides learning more about the Longbourn’s household staff you see the other side of Pride and Prejudice’s main characters. The side that doesn’t see the staff except when they are needed for service. The true die hard Austen fan may have some issues with this reality of the sweet Elizabeth and the intelligent Jane but we knew they weren’t perfect even in Austen’s story.
How can Baker capture the essences of Austen’s writing so well? She does it in several skillful ways:
- First, the story outline maps that of Pride/Prejudice so knowing the original story is really key to understanding the pace of Baker’s book.
- Second, Austen was a master of showing romance and those that lived a glamorous life of opulence – and a few that lived on the fringes – whereas Baker proves to be an equal master of reality. Life is hard for the working class in 18th century England when everything you are is decided by your employer.
- Third, Austen’s goal was to always give her readers a happy ending because everyone wants to fall in love. But Baker spotlights these characters – both the staff and stars of Pride and Prejudice – to show us the reality that we are always the hero in our own story and ultimately it is our story that matters most to each of us. Whether that story is of love or tragedy is really up to us.
Don’t fear the reality of Baker’s Longbourn. Baker leaves you with the same heartwarming sense of hope that keeps us returning to Austen’s work generation after generation. Baker’s version just doesn’t see the world with the rose colored glasses that Austen preferred and somehow that makes the hope she pays us with that much more meaningful.