Longbourn (Random House of Canada) is a delightful revisiting of the Bennet household, examining social questions and historic conflicts in a different light than Pride and Prejudice.
The novel follows the Bennets’ below-stairs help, particularly the housemaid Sarah and her relationship with the new manservant James. Besides an interesting servant’s perspective of the Bennet family, other new characters and downstairs drama add colour to the classic novel.
Longbourn is true to Pride and Prejudice and Baker’s attention to detail allows the reader to easily map the events of the novel to the original. I learned a lot about how housework was done in Regency England – I’m quite thankful laundry no longer involves handwashing everything in vats of boiled water and lye. Despite Baker’s obvious love for the novel, I’m not sure if I liked the histories she invents for some of the original characters, Mr. Bennet in particular; however, I accept that our headcanons are different. One addition I really enjoyed was the character of Ptolemy Bingley: the dynamic he brought helped broaden the scope of the novel beyond the Bennets’ kitchen, where I felt a lot of the action was (fairly or unfairly) centred.
Baker’s novel is a wonderful retelling of Pride and Prejudice with a Downton Abbey twist. I enjoyed seeing the Bennets from the perspective of someone who might not hold them with the same kind of reverence as modern fans might (although it was a relief that Elizabeth and Jane, at least, passed the test). Longbourn captures what I love about Pride and Prejudice and creates a rich look at love, work, and ambition in a Regency-era household.
I was fortunate enough to win tickets to Jo Baker on Pride and Prejudice, thanks to Random House of Canada and Indigo Events. The event was wonderful; following a screening of Joe Wright’s 2005 film Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker and Eleanor Wachtel (host extraordinare of CBC’s Writers & Company and TIFF’s Books on Film series) discussed both Baker’s new novel Longbourn and the film adaptation.
It was not my first time seeing this version of Pride and Prejudice (far from it), but my first time seeing it in theatres. The film was beautiful as always. During the opening remarks, Baker said that what she enjoyed about Wright’s movie was that it was “grittier” than most period films since it showed the dirt and livestock that were a part of everyday life. She suggested that this time around that we pay attention to the servants in the background, and the handkerchief. Baker considers the scene which follows a housemaid – the equivalent of Sarah in her own Longbourn – singing softly to herself as she moves throughout the Bennet house a “beautiful moment.” It was wonderful to see the movie on the big screen; the audience lent a new energy to the film on my umpteenth viewing and reminded me how funny this version actually is (possibly my favourite audience member was the man who had clearly not seen the movie before and laughed loudly at the funny parts).
Following the film, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Jo Baker, with the conversation ranging from where Jo Baker’s interest in service came from (her grandmother was a housemaid), on what subject was her Ph.D thesis (Irish literature, particularly Elizabeth Bowen, who writes about the country house and social class in a manner not totally divorced from Austen), and whether Baker would consider adapting another Austen novel from the perspective of the servants (no). When Wachtel noted Baker’s apparent fondness for Mr. Collins, she said she could relate to his awkwardness: “We all have awkward moments, his is just lasting a lifetime.” Following the interview was a Q&A and a signing. It was wonderful to spend an evening in the company of so many people who love Pride and Prejudice.
You can watch Jo Baker talk about Longbourn here.