Longbourn by Jo Baker (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audio, 13.5 hrs.
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Longbourn by Jo Baker, narrated by Emma Fielding, is a look at the servants behind the scenes of Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Sarah is an orphaned, hard-working housemaid in the Bennet household at Longbourn, but even as she keeps within the confines of her role, she begins to wish for something more.  Baker clearly delineates the roles of the household servants, and depicts the realities of that life with a frankness that cannot be ignored.  While readers may be cheering Sarah on in her dreams of something more, they also realize that dreaming for too much can become a devastating blow when it does not come to pass.  With the arrival of a new footman, Sarah finds herself torn between her feelings for him and that of Ptolemy Bingley, a mulatto servant of the Bingley family.  What readers will find here is that the servants interactions with the main characters of Austen’s work reinforce their flaws for the most part, which is to be expected when writing from the perspective of those in the lower class.

Fielding is a great narrator and does really well with the prose that closely mirrors that of Austen, ensuring that readers get wrapped up in the story.  The only drawback in this story is Ptolemy because he is a character who is under-developed and whose back story becomes a mere catalyst for Sarah’s evolution beyond her current status in the household.  It is almost as if he could have been someone that was talked about among the servants, rather than actually met by Sarah, as she’s only superficially tempted by him and what he represents tangentially.

It is almost as if the naive housemaid believes Ptolemy represents a greater freedom than he actually does, especially given that he was a former slave on a plantation owned by the Bingleys.  To another point, would the Bingleys actually have been plantation owners?  Perhaps not, given that most newly rich families earned their money in business dealings, not that plantation ownership could not be a business dealing.  This part of the story is not fully fleshed out, leaving readers with a very superficial view of his life and current situation.

Austen’s main story is not disrupted by Baker’s novel in any major way, with the girls being married off and some more favorably than others.  What’s strong here is the steady hand of Mrs. Hill and her ability to not only see past her own misfortunes but to also offer hope within her sage advice to Sarah.  Longbourn by Jo Baker, narrated by Emma Fielding, is engaging and captivating, while never putting window dressing on the lives of servants.

About the Author:

Jo Baker was born in Lancashire. She was educated at Oxford and at Queen’s University, Belfast, where she completed a PhD on the work of the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. Her first novel, Offcomer, was published by William Heinemann in 2001. Her second book, The Mermaid’s Child, is was published in August 2004. Jo Baker has also written for BBC Radio 4, and her short stories have been included in a number of anthologies. From 2001-2003 she was the Artistic Director of the Belfast Literary Festival. She lives in Belfast with her husband, the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville, and their son Daniel. The Telling is her third novel.

  • jennygirl73

    I’m interested in the downstairs world of English houses so I’ll add this to the list. thanks for bringing this to my attention

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    This sounds really good – I bet my mom would love it.

  • I really liked this one. I also liked the fact that it didn’t disrupt the main story at all, as you say, but one could definitely sense the main story in the background!

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    This sounds interesting. I’ve never read an Austenesque novel from the servants’ POV. I believe there was an article a few months ago that discussed whether Darcy would’ve owned slaves. Not sure if it mentioned the Bingleys, as I didn’t read it.