Jo Baker's Longbourn is a new take on the favored Austen Regency no doubt inspired by Downton Abbey's success. Instead of the above-stairs world readers have adored for generations, Baker transports her readers to the servants' hall where the likes of Mr. & Mrs. Hill run the Bennet household alongside Sarah, Polly, and the newly arrived footman, James. Rather than following the popular retelling trend that so many authors have followed for the past decade or so, Baker plants us in the heart of Pride and Prejudice, but the upstairs life fades into the background like the incessant buzzing of bees on a summer day. Austen fans must beware however, as Baker does not romanticize the lives of working class maids, footmen, and cooks in our beloved Regency. Instead, she challenges our views of our most beloved characters by humanizing the servants who ensure that Jane's hair is done to its finest, and Lydia has all the shoe roses she could hope for. Baker humanizes the very people that the Regency sought to exclude which shocks our highly romanticized version of Austen-era living. Even Elizabeth, who is seen in the original novel as the most realistic and least taken with frivolity is shown to be entirely naive about the realities of the world. Behind closed doors, Lydia appears all the more silly, and Wickham all the more insidious as he circles young Polly like a wolf in sheep's clothing - offering her sweets and gentlemanly airs which can only spell disaster.
Groombridge Place or Longbourn in the 2005 film. (Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/turboff)
Many points in this book had me holding my breath and hoping for the best for the characters I had come to love. The descriptions of early mornings and late nights full of hard labor had me admiring the plucky Sarah far more than any of her mistresses. But fear not dear reader, Baker includes plenty of intrigue to hold your attention and perhaps push you to view time-honored characters in a new light. My only grievance was the romanticized ending which took an impossible situation and wrapped it up neatly with a frilly bow. However it was clear that Baker wanted for Sarah what Austen had given Elizabeth and Jane - the impossibly happy ending given to a character we feel deserves nothing but the best. Perhaps this is our modern equivalent to the fairytale - historical fiction wherein we hear the voices of the invisible and celebrate the triumphs of those who had to fight for every yard of muslin and scrap of dignity. For lolita fashion fans, Longbourn is full of young women and therefore full of beautiful dresses and sumptuous fabrics which are described in great detail by Baker. Though the mistresses are far from the focal point of this novel, their constant stream of engagements supply Sarah and Polly with a full day's work, and us readers with many pages filled with muslin, silk, and lace all of which is constantly washed, mended, folded, unfolded, packed, and unpacked in a parade of ruffles and bows.