My favorites for the year, as some of you may know, are The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. And now there’s a fourth: Longbourn by Jo Baker.
Longbourn is being billed as Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective but that pitch underserves it. The Bennet sisters make appearances, but their respective dramas are given only a mention. They are there but not there –this story is not of their making. I have the highest respect for Baker because of this. On this year, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, a year when Jane Austen fandom once again swept the nation, she could have wrote an Austenian spin-off. She could have sold an Austenian spinoff. But instead she spun a tale of entirely different dimensions – a tale, arguably, filled with even more depth and beauty than its inspiration.
Longbourn is not about the Bennets – it is about living in the shadow of the Bennets. It is about living a life of servitude when faced every day with finery, and about longing for the big, wide world when you’re resolutely confined to an estate. It is about the servants’ life and duties, oft-overlooked, but also about their hearts, and fears and hopes.
Jo Baker inhabits the persona of Sarah, the housemaid, with complete understanding – with sympathy, with admiration and something like kinship. But by far the strongest section of the book – the part where the writing and plot and tension absolutely soar – is the last third, when the story morphs into that of James and Mrs. Hill – the footman and housekeeper. Very suddenly, the stakes are set higher, the narrative is drawn tighter and the writing (the writing!) is taken to an unforeseeable level. It must, of course, because it must match the themes it now brings to the fore: fortitude and desperation and the sacrifices one must make in times of war.
The story of James and Mrs. Hill is kept entirely under wraps for the majority of the book and it unfurls like an accordion – with just as much weight and consequence. The fact that Baker is able to keep this part secret and preface it, still, with so much that is substantial is something like artistry to me. But then, Jo Baker is nothing less than an artist. With her writing, she paints broad, beautiful strokes – descriptions that hum and sing and pulse. You will be held in thrall by the rhythm of her storytelling and kept in suspense until the last page. Highly, highly recommended.
Many thanks to Knopf, a division of Random House, for my review copy!