Jo Baker
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Random House
Release Date
October 2013
Historical Novel with Romantic Elements

• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them.

In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants' hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen's classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.

Book Review by Bridget (reviewer)
Mar 08, 2014   [ OFFICIAL REVIEW ]
192 people found the following review helpful
Lush, full of historic detail and beautifully engaging, Jo Baker's addition to the world of Pride and Prejudice is a perfect choice for Austen fans and the uninitiated alike.

LONGBOURN is set at the Bennett family's home during the events of Jane Austen's classic novel, but takes place almost entirely below stairs, and stars the servants who keep the household functioning and care for the family that generations have grown to love: Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and cook, and the two young maids, Sarah and Polly. Their days are filled with cleaning and cooking, organizing and preparing. Now that the young Miss Bennetts have begun the search for husbands, the demands of visitors and visiting, of re-stitching ball gowns and driving carriages across the countryside have begun.

Life at Longbourn has a rhythm and a predictability on which Sarah has come to rely--but when a new footman, who calls himself James Smith, arrives, with secrets aplenty and a special regard for Sarah, things begin to get suddenly complicated. Her interactions with the other servants in the area opens Sarah's eyes to the larger world and forces her to realize that even an orphaned maid can make her own choices in matters of the heart.

Jo Baker does a marvelous job working the familiar details of Jane Austen's classic into this story without descending to a pastiche. Her work is fresh and insightful, and brings a whole new level of understanding to a world that will be familiar to many. However, rather than paint the idyllic scene of films, she emphasizes the distasteful, the exhausting and the genuinely difficult aspects of life that were commonplace for Georgian Era servants. Though jarring at first, these details become vital parts of the story, and her meticulous details add a great deal to the world of this story.

The characters all are beautifully drawn, with flaws and fears and heart and strength. Because various scenes are told through different characters eyes, the reader gets a chance to understand them more thoroughly, and understand just how they became the person they are. Sarah is arguably the main character of the story, and her resilience, her indomitable imagination and her growing sense of herself in the world made her instantly attractive. Most fascinating of all, I think, was James Smith. His past provides a surprising, heartrending and deeply insightful glimpse into a different side of the Napoleonic wars, and made his development over the course of the novel something worth remembering.

In addition, the glimpse of the well-remembered Bennett family and numerous other members of Austen's original novel, are a welcome treat. Jo Baker doesn't shy away from each characters shortcomings or faults, but doesn't try to tear them down unnecessarily. It's a delicate balancing act, but she pulls it off well, and in a way that also adds important elements to the story she is telling.

There are a number of more real historic moments in this book that will linger. From reference to the British slave trade to the less glamorous side of army life, a wealth of research and passion for the period has gone into making this novel, and aficionados and newcomers alike will surely become immersed in each page.

Though not overtly a romance, there is a wealth of love here, whether it appears between characters, in the language, or in Baker's very evident love of her subject. This book will sweep readers away into a different, less gilded, but certainly more realistic and emotional world than most historic novels, and give Austen fans a new perspective on a time and place they have come to treasure.
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