Pick of the Week: Longbourn by Jo Baker
When it was my turn to pick the July classic for Cook Memorial Library’s Classics Book Club, I went to one of my favorites, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in honor of its 200th anniversary. I love Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, two characters who have captured the imaginations of readers and writers for the past two centuries.
For our discussion, I pulled out dozens of books from our shelves that were inspired by Pride and Prejudice, including Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, where the murder of the despicable Wickham must be solved. I also found several books dealt with Lydia Bennet’s exploits after marrying Wickham, including The Bad Miss Bennet by Jean Burnett.
Poor, misunderstood Mary Bennet got her own book with The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough, who imagines Mary setting off for adventures in her 30s. Elizabeth Aston writes about Elizabeth and Darcy’s children 20 years later in Mr. Darcy’s Daughters. And last but not least, Seth Grahame-Smith imagines a bizarre world where Elizabeth and Darcy become adept at whacking zombies in a very polite manner in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is available as both a novel AND a graphic novel.
I have to admit that as much as I love Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, I have been reluctant to read any of the spinoffs. But I thought I would take a shot at the newest one, Longbourn by Jo Baker (publication date Oct. 8), which imagines the story from the view of the Bennet servants. Baker said in interviews she was inspired to write the book from the line, “The very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’’ Who was the proxy? Baker took Austen’s slight mention of the two housemaids, the housekeeper, the butler and the footman and created a wonderful novel about what went on behind the scenes in Longbourn.
Baker’s protagonist is Sarah, a young housemaid who longs for a life beyond emptying chamber pots every morning and scrubbing the mud from petticoats when Elizabeth goes on one of her long ambles. When James, the new footman, is hired, Sarah is drawn to the quiet, secretive young man. Baker also touches on current events that Austen avoided, including the Napoleonic Wars and the slave trade.
Wickham is even more sinister in this depiction, while Mr. Collins comes off a little more likeable. If you have a crush on Darcy, this book won’t give you much satisfaction because he rarely makes an appearance. Just remember that this book is told from the servants’ point of view, which I enjoyed immensely. Baker wrote a wonderful book that reminds the reader that behind all the glamour and drama of finding husbands during Austen’s time, the people who did all the hard work lead difficult lives.