The incessant tweeting I have done regarding my participation in Cannonball Read 5 has earned me a few new followers. Among them is Jo Baker’s publicist, who tweeted recently that she had some advance copies of this book to give away. I mentioned that I had Longbourn on my ever growing “to read” shelf (currently at 239 titles on Goodreads) and thus a copy was sent to me.
To anyone who knows me, it will be no surprise that I haven’t actually read Pride & Prejudice. My nickname isn’t popcultureboy for nothing, you know. I have tried many times to read some of the old classics and I have always failed. However, put a new spin on one of them, and I will almost always be interested. Austen’s novel has created a subgenre already. There are versions of it retold through Mr Darcy, there are sequels, there’s Pemberley set murder mysteries (though the less said about that, the better) and of course, there’s Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Baker, as far as I am aware, is the first to venture downstairs and re-tell it from the point of the servants.
Mrs Hill is Longbourn’s housekeeper and brooks no nonsense. Her husband additionally sees to the grounds and the horses while Sarah and Polly help Mrs Hill with household and kitchen duties. Then a new footman “smelling of the sea and bearing secrets” arrives, like a stone thrown into a mill pond. A presence barely noticed by the Bennett girls, his presence below stairs is much more keenly felt. For two thirds of the novel, not a great deal happens in terms of plot, but the writing and characterisation is really quite beautiful, which makes it gripping nonetheless.
Jo Baker knows of what she speaks. Her family has a history of service not unlike the staff employed by the Bennett family. This results in a cast of characters faithfully and respectfully presented. Baker wanted to give these ordinary people, who are only glimpsed in the Bennett’s rarefied world, a voice and in that she has most definitely succeeded. And when the novel backtracks to fill in the history of the footman and the servants of Longbourn, Baker makes you appreciate everything you’ve read all over again.
This is one of the strongest novels I have read in a fair while. It’s a remarkable achievement and it’s one that could have gone horribly awry (cf Death Comes to Pemberley). It’s full of beautiful prose and characters you end up caring deeply about and rooting for. It’s an odd disconnect in me that I will boo hoo at the drop of a hat for a film, TV show or piece of theatre but have only ever been moved to tears by a book once (and that was The Lovely Bones. I think it’s fair to say I’m not alone in that). The last three pages of Longbourn are so gorgeous, so heartfelt and just so right that I had an awfully big lump in my throat. Brava.
Longbourn is published in the UK on August 13th with a US publication date set for October 8th.