Longbourn by Jo Baker, 331 pages
review copy from Random House Canada
I was telling my (Pride & Prejudice loving) friend I had this book I was looking forward to for the summer, called Longbourn. She stopped, looked at me with a frisson of recognition, and said, "Who lives at Longbourn?" She knew it was a literature reference to a house, the house where Elizabeth Bennett lived. It only took a minute, but she was as hooked by the premise as I was. And I'm not even a P&P freak like her.
I wanted a great book to start the summer, and it was as wonderful as I'd hoped. Historical fiction, with the Pride and Prejudice plot happening parallel, and a dear love story. Upstairs, Downstairs, and Downton Abbey have shown the fascination for both the aristocrats and the servants and this book gives us a look at the lives below Lizzie and Jane and Lydia. Mrs Bennett is as tiring for the servants as you could imagine; Wickham even more of an ass.
Sarah is the orphaned housegirl, James arrives as the mysterious footman, but there is definitely more to his story than is originally let on. I liked how Baker structured the book; two thirds in the now, and then the background history of the servants and how they ended up where they did, especially James. The characters of Sarah and James, (and the black footman, Ptolemy Bingley) were well developed, and showed the frustration of, while not being a slave, having very few options for living or loving.
The characters and plot are compelling enough that I don't think you would have to have read Pride and Prejudice to enjoy this on its own as historical fiction, but naturally, having the background of Lizzie and Mr Darcy adds another level of enjoyment. I had been picking away at the book for a few weeks, but last night I reached the point of no return and could not put it down. I had to read to the end. And now I must run this wonderful book out to my friend. She's going to love it!