Saturday, 5 October 2013

Book Review - Longbourn by Jo Baker

If 10 cats are sitting in a boat and one jumps out how many remain? none because they are copycats. I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because I want the damn boat!

• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.

In this irresistibly imagined below stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.

It always astounds me that there are authors out there brave, or foolish, enough to tackle the story of Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice". I have read and seen countless adaptations, sequels, prequels and modern retellings over the years with very few, in my opinion , doing justice to this absolute beloved novel. Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” is one of a handful that I have not just enjoyed because it was about characters that I love like family, but loved for its story in its own merit.

“Longbourn” is a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" though the tale has been taken down under the stairs to the servants quarters. Our female protagonist isn’t the brazen Elizabeth Bennett, dealing with issues of manners, morality, education and marriage at the turn of the 19th century. Instead we are introduced to the Bennets housemaid, a young woman named Sarah whose world is all chilblained hands, aching limbs and (in stark detail) the Bennett girls dirty laundry. She is certain that there is more to life then soaking mud lined petticoats.

The arrival of a new footman to the house is a welcome addition, appreciated by the status loving Mrs Bennett and daughters and to the servants who appreciate an extra pair of hands sharing the work. With the exception of Sarah, who is certain that there is more to the man then he is letting on. We soon learn of James (the footman) feelings for Sarah and his history as the viewpoint switches between Sarah, James and the housekeeper, Mrs Hill, who has some secrets of her own to keep.

It took the few first chapters for me to let go of the characters I know so well. Austen’s characters are recognisable as they flit in and out of the story, All the names and details are still there, but things are slightly different then we remember from Austen’s novel. The Bennets, even my beloved Lizzie, seem selfish, pampered and their little dramas trivial. Getting dressed to go to the ball no longer seems as wonderful as I had always pictured it as the author brings to our attention who exactly has to trudge into town for shoe roses, get the girls all dressed in their finery and then wait until they come home to give them supper.

Jo Baker weaves a story so well that by the end, you actually like Mr Collins, one of the most irritating of all Austen’s characters.

Some ugly truths are tackled in this retelling that you would never hear detail of in one of Jane’s books, though they are ground breaking in their study of strong intelligent female characters. Subjects such as the brutality of war and being a solider, the ghastly truth about the slave trade, the perversity of Mr Wickham and his preference for younger girls and what an unwed mother would really have to cope with are written about in a frank and historically accurate manner. It lends a new dimension to the world that Janeites like myself dream about and reminds us that the world of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy was not all parlours and dances.

Jo Baker’s "Longbourn" takes the ghostly characters behind the scenes and brings them to the light as completely involving and intriguing beings that you can’t help but like. If you are after a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" to hear more about the love affair of Elizabeth and Darcy, then this isn’t the novel for you. To be frank - Their love affair, which has made so many women sigh over the years, is treated with complete indifference by the lead characters. It goes to show that this novel isn’t just another rehashing of a story well known by so many. This is a new novel and a new story that stands on its own two unfashionable but completely practical leather boots.

I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads

I was given the opportunity to trial Grammarly - a writing enhancement platform and I am absolutely won over by it. The grammar corrections it can catch compared to your basic old spell check is unbelievable. I think what I like most about it, is that it explains to you why what you have written may be wrong instead of just putting an ugly green wiggly line underneath and confusing you. You also have the choice to chose how grammar nazi you want the checker to be, which means you can use it for a casual blog post and then turn around and use it for a university paper. The site also has a plagiarism checker which is a great application. There is no excuse for bad grammar any longer! I recommend using Grammarly to anyone who blogs.

This post has been sponsored by Grammarly, but the views are my own.

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