Longbourn by Jo Baker

LongbournI confess to being a Jane Austen fanatic. As such, I have read or tried to read many prequels, sequels, and retellings of Austen’s six novels, especially Pride and Prejudice.  Most aren’t very good, and I think the problem often lies in the author’s attempts to imitate Austen—to stick too closely to the original instead of making it their own.  No one can successfully imitate the literary genius of Jane Austen’s works.

Jo Baker succeeds because she uses Austen only as a starting point. Longbourn takes place during the events of Pride and Prejudice, but the main characters are the servants at Longbourn, the home of Elizabeth Bennet and her family. The reader sees what life is like for the people who must work long hours behind the scenes at backbreaking tasks to keep the household running smoothly.

The main character is Sarah, a young housemaid who has been working for the Bennets since she was orphaned as a girl. Sarah is grateful for her job, but she longs for something more. Then, as so often happens, two different but eligible men come into her life.  One is James Smith, a rough-around-the edges man with a mysterious past who is hired to work as a footman at Longbourn. The other is Ptolemy Bingley, a smooth and handsome mixed-race servant of Mr. Bingley, descended from slaves on the Bingley sugar plantations in the Caribbean.  Both men offer Sarah their love along with very different futures.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book, as Sarah contrasts her life with that of Elizabeth Bennet:

“Sarah wondered what it would be like, to live like this—life as a country dance, where everything is lovely, and graceful, and ordered, and every single turn is preordained, and not a foot may be set outside the measure. Not like Sarah’s own out-in-all-weathers haul and trudge, the wind howling and blustery, the creeping flowers in the hedgerows, the sudden sunshine.”

There were times in the book when I felt things were moving a little too slowly, but overall this is one of my favorite Austen retellings. I would recommend it not only for fans of Austen, but also for fans of historical fiction that features the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Find and reserve this book at the library.

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