Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home


Longbourn by Jo Baker Random House, 2013 The popularity of Downton Abbey and the spate of movie versions of Jane Austen’s novels makes this book almost inevitable. Inevitable doesn’t always mean good. But this book surpasses expectations. Jo Baker has created a novel out of the “downstairs” people of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennet family – drama queen Mrs. Bennet, her five marriageable daughters and their father, bibliophile Mr Bennet, bored with it all, the bonnets, the dresses, the dances  – are served by a small overworked household staff. The story opens in the kitchen with the servants. Sarah is a young woman, probably about seventeen years old. Polly, the “scrub” is a mere child, about ten or eleven. Mr. Hill is the ancient footman, groom, and jack of all trades. He is getting too old for the work, and the whole shooting match is held up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. Mrs. Hill, capable, hard-working and kind, is the heart of this novel, though there are three viewpoint characters. The others are Sarah, and James Smith, a mysterious stranger who arrives at Longbourn and becomes the family’s footman. Through her portrayal of the day to day work of these servants and her lyrical  descriptions of the English countryside, Baker has  given us a fascinating view into everyday life in the early nineteenth century. That would have been enough for me, history buff that I am, but it would not have made a novel. On the edifice of Austen’s fictional characters and place, though, Baker has created a plot so powerful that it enhances the original Austen model. Unlike Austen, Baker moves the reader beyond the safe little Tory world of Longbourn, to the Napoleonic War raging in Europe, which in Pride and Prejudice is central to the plot because of the stationing of the English Militia in the town of Meryton. Though Austen’s own brothers served in the Navy, in her novels the war is seen only through the eyes of home-bound women, who see officers as marriage material. In the second half of Longbourn, Baker takes the reader beyond England to Europe and back again, exposing the perennial horrors of war, and showing us the social inequities that led to the revolutions of the nineteenth century. Jane Austen has been criticized for portraying a small world-view, comfortable and smug – even though her writing is actually rapier sharp, exposing women’s limited options. In Longbourn, Jo Baker redresses this alleged fault.

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