Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Longbourn by Jo Baker: audio edition read by Emma Fielding (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: November)

on November 29, 2013

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200Once again I’m blogging this review in the nick of time – tomorrow is the last day of November and I’ll be out all day anyway.

I’ve had Longbourn downloaded to my phone for some time and finally got to listen to the bulk of it whilst driving to and from my sister’s in the North West at the beginning of last week. In the little car I’d hired there was nowhere to plug my phone into, so I had to rely on its own speakers and the volume turned up as high as possible to compete with the sound of the engine and variable road surface, but I discovered in the end that I could hear it quite well if I had it in my lap, and only had to pull over a couple of times when, frustratingly, the Audible app froze and needed restarting (it’s a very elderly iPhone which I’ve somewhat overloaded and occasionally it protests and requires kind words and soothing taps to placate it).

Anyway – for those who haven’t heard of it, Jo Baker’s Longbourn is a novel which takes place over roughly the same time period as Pride and Prejudice (with a flashback to some years before, and a continuation at the end), but is told from the point of view of the servants who work in the Bennets’ house. Mrs Hill, the housekeeper, at least, will be known to the readers of Pride and Prejudice (and certainly to the viewers of the BBC television adaptation, thanks to Alison Steadman’s frequent screeching of her name!). Alongside her, the staff comprises her husband Mr Hill and housemaids Sarah and Polly. A manservant, James, joins them early on the story, and readers also meet some of the staff of Netherfield and Pemberley at times.

The story piques the reader’s interest from the outset – who is the fleeting figure Sarah glimpses in the road outside the estate, whilst she’s hanging out the washing? Why is Mrs Hill shouting at Mr Bennet in his library – and how does she have the nerve? As Sarah goes about her daily business of laundry, cleaning, cooking and dressing the young ladies of the house, not to mention the seemingly endless washing up, she’s aware that there might be more to life than what she’s experienced so far. With vague memories of her life before she came to Longbourn and ideas from the books she borrows from the Bennet family, she wonders if she should be content with her lot in life. The new arrivals at Netherfield bring more upheavals and romantic notions and Sarah begins to question who she is, and who she wants to be. Meanwhile Mrs Hill and James are both struggling with secrets from their past which affect their hopes for the future, and the Bennet family’s concerns about their future security when Mr Collins inherits their home are echoed by the staff, whose own future is in jeopardy if they fail to impress him during his visit.

As the events of Pride and Prejudice progress, observed in part by the servants (although sometimes with their own take on things, such as the occasion on which Jane falls ill at Netherfield and it is proclaimed in the kitchen to be “just a cold” that she would soon be over), they have as much impact, in a different way, on the lives of Sarah, James, Polly and the Hills as on Elizabeth, Jane and their family. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler, however, to say that ultimately all the loose ends are tied up in a very satisfying – if at times unexpected – way.

On the whole I really enjoyed this book. It’s very long – quite a commitment, as it mimics the traditional three volumes popular in Regency times, and covers a long period of time – but for me that makes it more of a worthwhile read (or listen, in my case). I found the insights into life in service at the time fascinating and enlightening, and a vivid contrast to the world portrayed in Pride and Prejudice – I’d never thought, for instance, despite the fact that it’s pretty obvious when you consider it, that whilst the girls are dancing and enjoying themselves (or being snubbed and offended) at balls and assemblies, the drivers who brought them and who will take them home are sitting outside waiting in the cold, unless a kindly housekeeper invites them inside for a while. Elizabeth’s petticoats, famously three inches deep in mud, need to be cleaned and perfectly white again for the next wearing, however much scrubbing and soaking and bleeding chill-blains that entails. There was a lot of local colour, sometimes in the form of swearwords (which took me by surprise at first, when the language and style is similar to that of Austen herself, but as time went on felt more natural to the characters), and sometimes in rather bald references to differences between then and now, which I found rather jarring. For example, in a passage describing Sarah dressing Elizabeth, there’s a reference to the “musky down” revealed when Elizabeth lifts her arms (I think those were the words – that’s the difficulty with audiobooks, it’s harder to quote from them reliably), which felt almost as unnecessary as if Baker had written “in those days, of course, women didn’t shave their armpits”. As it was so common, it would hardly have been remarkable to Sarah (from whose point of view the story is being told at the time), and therefore really not worth mentioning.

Those moments aside, however, there wasn’t much that I disliked about the book. As I mentioned, there were a few surprises about some of the characters which I found interesting, but not necessarily in a negative way. I’m not sure how I feel about the development of Mr Bennet’s character, as I thought it was a real departure from what we see in Pride and Prejudice – not impossible, but in Longbourn he seems rather spiteful and hard at times, rather than merely weak and acquiescent. I really loved the way Baker allows Wickham’s true colours to be revealed amongst the staff, whilst not for a moment making him into a pantomime baddie, but a charming, confusing, complex man who wants it all without having to lift a finger for any of it. And it was good to see Mr Darcy taking his proper place as a man of whom little, if anything, is seen until the later moments of the book!

I haven’t much to say about Emma Fielding’s narration, which I think is in itself an endorsement – it was never intrusive, her character voices and accents were helpful to the understanding of the story and her gentle narrative tones were easy to listen to. Altogether, it was a very different experience from the previous audiobook I reviewed here.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone, particularly lovers of historical fiction and Austen-lovers who’d like to consider more of what was going on below stairs and out in the gardens and fields (and battlefields), whilst Austen’s heroines are closeted in their relatively safe little worlds. I’ll also be looking out for more of Jo Baker’s novels to read myself.

Finally I’d like to thank Jane of What Jane Read Next for reminding me that this book was in existence, since I’d meant to read it when I first heard about it (pre-publication) and then completely forgotten about it until I read her review. This was one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on, and a useful way to pass two long and tedious car journeys.

For my next (and final) review, I’d really like to cover the BBC TV adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley which is scheduled to be broadcast in three episodes over the coming Christmas period. However, I’m not sure if this will be contained within December or whether it will spill over to January, in which case it wouldn’t qualify! No doubt I’ll discover more when the Christmas issue of Radio Times comes out shortly. I haven’t read PD James’ novel, so it will be fresh to me, but the cast looks like a good one and I can particularly imagine Jenna Coleman (of Doctor Who fame) making a wonderful Lydia Bennet.

Thankful for…

  • Some time with my sister and her family last week, and the opportunity to visit the care home where my Gran now lives.
  • A lovely friend who has taught me to crochet
  • Christmas preparations coming apace, including being very close to finishing my Christmas shopping (just a few stocking bits to get now)
  • Really uplifting choir rehearsals, preparing for next week’s performance of Handel’s Messiah
  • A couple of days spent with the Butterfly whilst she’s been off school with a bad cold
  • The prospect of advent’s being almost upon us, and two new books (this one and this one)
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