Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Jo Baker
Alfred A. Knopf
Random House
New York, New York
ISBN: 978-0-385-35123-2
$ 2595
332 pages

"Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually, failed."

In the memorable Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, we were introduced to characters of privilege who had servants who were to be agreeable and basically fulfill whatever their these people wished.   Basically it was slavery of a sort where their opinions of the servants were not valued and being that jobs inside the houses were few and considered prestigious, the servants worked for low wages with their housing and meals were provided.  In exchange, these same servants were granted little time-off or freedom to choose their own career.  Granted that a few people who were servants became their own independent masters, that was unusual.
This was also the time period where wealthy women wore long dresses often trailing on the ground.   Perhaps fashion would have changed sooner is the people who wore these magnificent gowns were responsible for keeping them clean.   This is the story of those who resided in the back of the house and frequently lived in the attic rooms.
Longbourn is the story of Sarah who even though she was an orphan, received the opportunity for a better life being a housemaid.   Yes, being a housemaid is definitely better than being in the workhouses where life truly was miserable.  Her days in the Bennet house of Longbourn seem monotanous but she truly appreciates her position cleaning chamber pots, hand scrubbing all the laundry, and accomplishing all the multiple duties needed to keep a place proper and clean.
Besides Sarah, the other servants in the story include Mr. and Mrs. Hill who are the long term butler and cook and another housemaid, Polly who is new and unfamiliar with the expectations and lifestyle of servitude.
Her attention is diverted when a new footman, James Smith is hired.  He seems to have a mysterious past being that most able-bodied men at the time are off fighting the Napoleonic Wars.  So why is he at Longbourn?  Being that he tends to avoid those in the military, is he a deserter?  Why does his back have scars of being whipped?
While many writers throughout the years have attempted to emulate Jane Austin, Jo Baker wonderfully composes a story which could easily be the companion novel to Pride and Prejudice, essentially an "Upstairs, Downstairs."
Longbourn is unquestionably an outstanding novel.  With vivid descriptions and visualizations, the reader feels as if they are Sarah in England during the early nineteenth century.  These is definitely a sense of the time period and the place as well as the sense of
the smells and tastes.
Yes, the story at times seems contrived as in so many romantic novels.  However, the writing is exquisite with outstanding descriptions and developed characters.
The author, Jo Baker is well known from her previous novels The Undertow, Offcomer, The Mermaid's Child and The Telling.   She was born and continues to live in England.

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