Book Review // Longbourn by Jo Baker

As a literature student, I often want something to read in bed alongside my horribly dense 900 page long eighteenth century novels. (seriously - without the internet or television it doesn't take much to wonder what ladies of the 1700's got up to). At the time I was cracking through 'Emma', and just for a liiiiiitle change to the norm I picked up Longbourn from W. H Smiths after having it recommended by one of my professors.

I've always been a bit dubious of Austen 'fan fiction' as the few I've leafed through have been horribly over-romanticised, but when I saw Longbourn termed 'Pride and Prejudice - The Servants Story', I knew this would be a good read, it was just a matter of how good!

The timing of this novel is excellent what with hype over recent years surrounding Downton Abbey and the stories that come from 'below', and indeed the book peels back the many petticoat layers of Pride and Prejudice to reveal the pretty grim underside of a working household.

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields.

When we think of Lizzie and her sisters images of effortless ease and grace, romance and heritage, perfectly draped skirts and delicate lace come to mind, but the reality was evidently a far different story.

Mentioned only fleetingly in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Hill and Sarah move ghost-like around the house, preparing the potatoes Mr. Collins so readily compliments, stitching and unstitching rich velvet trimmings from Jane's dresses before The Wash and scrubbing the nappies and then dirty undergarments that a household of six females readily produces.

The narrative runs alongside that we are familiar with in Austen's text, and yet has an equally rich and fulfilling plot that gives justice to those that so easily blend into the background.

Jo Baker's research surrounding the culture, history and events of the early nineteenth century pour forth into every chapter and help build up a vividly descriptive setting that I would argue is far more tangible than that in Austen's own books. The characterisation is wonderful, and Baker picks up on the slightest insight Austen gives us into a character's background - Mr. Bennet's libertine-esque past and failures as a father are particularly well drawn out and give an extra dimension to those figures we think we know so well.

I would say that this is a book you read with all the senses - the 'scent of pine sap and fine candlewax and wool' bring a polished leather saddle right under your nose just as birds in the hedges 'fluffed like thistledowns' walk you right into the chilly December countryside.

The story has romance, danger, grandeur and a humbling spectrum of class diversity, as Sarah is wholly disenchanted with her life as a servant and learns to evaluate what she really wants for her future.

A valuable lesson in seeing beneath the highly idealised perception we have of the world, Longbourn sees to it that every person, of every background has a story and that those who are richest don't always have the wealthiest lives.

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