GUEST POST – Longbourn by Jo Baker

GUEST REVIEWER – teachergirl73

longbourn cover jo baker

  • Title: Longbourn
  • Author: Jo Baker
  • ISBN 0385351232
  • (ISBN13: 9780385351232)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: October 8th 2013 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2013)
  • Format: Hardcover Edition
  • Genre/s: Literature/Fiction
  • Print Length: 352 pages
  • Source: Puchased
  • Rating: A

Back in October, I had the opportunity to go to a special screening of Joe Wright’s 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice at the TIFF Bell Lightbox which was followed by a discussion with  Jo Baker, the author of the new novel Longbourn.  For those of you who are already fans of Pride and Prejudice, then you will recognize the name of the book as that of the fictional estate where the Bennet family lived.

I am a huge fan of Wright’s interpretation of Jane Austen‘s beloved novel, and I was lucky enough to have seen it at TIFF back in 2005, at its Gala Premiere. The cinematography and musical score are nothing short of exquisite, and Matthew Macfadyen‘s portrayal of a more vulnerable Mr. Darcy completely won me over. I was not the only one who was impressed by Wright’s production, as this version served as an inspiration for Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn. In Wright’s production, we get to see a glimpse of the Longbourn servants at work on the estate. This is the basis of Baker’s novel, as she tells the story of the servants of Longbourn, as the story of Pride and Prejudice unfolds.

Baker’s ability to describe the day-to-day business of living in the early 19th century is very detailed, and certainly made me appreciate the creature comforts that we have today! She does an excellent job of describing the arduous and mostly unpleasant work involved in keeping the Bennet family in the lifestyle to which was befitting of a family of its stature. Much of this description is used in the beginning of the novel to set the stage of just how difficult and uncertain the life of a servant could be. More importantly, however, Baker makes it clear just how powerless servants were over the circumstances of their lives.

longbourn uk hardback coverIn Pride and Prejudice, we are introduced to the Bennet family, who hope to arrange advantageous marriages for their five daughters because the estate was entailed to a male cousin. It is not until reading Longbourn, however, that you are introduced to the far more desperate fate of the servants living on the estate, what would become of them once Mr. Collins takes over? As most of Mrs. Bennet’s anxiety results in comedic antics as she frets about finding five husbands for her girls, there is a far more serious concern brewing in the servants quarters.

It is after she has set the stage of what a day in the life of a servant might look like in England in the early 1800’s, that Baker begins to weave another element, one of a very fragile love, into the story.  It is at this point that the novel takes hold of the reader and does not let go.

James had no intentions; he could not afford to have any; he could not afford to rope another person to his saddle. All he could do was keep his head down and get his work done. Which was why this stirring in him, the prickle of desire in his belly, the twist of jealousy there too, was so very unwelcome indeed. It must be quashed; it do not, after all, mean anything. It was a shame: that was the most that could be said of it. A shame to have to turn his head away, when he would very much prefer to look; a shame that Sarah would of course go and fall in love and it would not be with him. But the sorrow of it came as something of a surprise: he should by now be perfectly accustomed to doing what he did not want to do, to letting things happen that he did not want to happen. But this? No; he could not reconcile himself to this.

As I was reading, I found that with each page, Longbourn just got better and better. Baker paints not just the historical setting of the estate and surrounding area, but sheds some light on the troubles facing England at the time, namely the war with France and its inevitable costs on both the soldiers and civilians who survived. Baker also picks up a thread from Austen’s novel that suggested that Mr. Bingley’s family money came from his father’s involvement in the merchant trade. Baker runs with this storyline as she implies that the Bingleys’ money has not just come from trade but also has connections to a Caribbean estate and slavery.  All of these outside forces have some impact on the lives of all of those that live and work at Longbourn, and I think that is what makes this novel the perfect companion piece to Pride and Prejudice.

HIGHER FEES APPLY. British author Jo Baker pictured at her publisher's office.Jo Baker was born in Lancashire. She was educated at Oxford and at Queen’s University, Belfast, where she completed a PhD on the work of the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. The Undertow is her first publication in the United States. She is the author of three previous novels published in the United Kingdom: Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The TellingJo Baker has also written for BBC Radio 4, and her short stories have been included in a number of anthologies. From 2001-2003 she was the Artistic Director of the Belfast Literary Festival. She lives in Lancaster with her husband, the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville, and their son Daniel. Longbourn is her fifth novel.

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