Longbourn: A Novel, by Jo Baker
This is an example of a novel that could only be written in our own contemporary age. For a considerable amount of time there have been novels that are based on Jane Austen’s work, as this one is, but most of them sought to recapture the romance of the time. This book is something quite different than a regency romance that continues Austen’s work, but is rather a work of social historical fiction, one that looks at the Below Stairs  look at Longbourn manor, and the life and times of the Bennet family from the point of view of their servants, who are so unobtrusively placed in Austen’s work that they appear almost invisible to the untrained or uninterested eye. Yet from fleeting glances of the behavior of servants, the author has constructed a novel that is certainly interesting and that succeeds in pointing out that moderns do not do justice to the Regency era even when they approach it from the point of view of social historians, while also demonstrating that the lives of the servants is an equally compelling story to the lives of their beautiful and somewhat fragile employers.
For the first part of this novel, one could be forgiven for thinking that it would follow the course of Pride & Prejudice in its entirety, but it does not, and it is designed in a somewhat unconventional manner. At the beginning of the novel, we see the servants of Longbourn, four in number, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, and Polly (whose real name is Mary), the latter of whom were acquired by the household as somewhat surplus population as orphans. Their comfortable life of washing linens and dealing with chilblains (one of the most repeated words in this book) is disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious young gentleman who clearly has a shady past, and by Sarah’s flirtations with the glamorous mulatto footman who is half-brother to the Bingleys he serves. The goings on of the servants and their work and their hopes and dreams and schemes and malingering progress until James is forced to flee from Longbourn because of the threats of the perfidious Wickham, who is portrayed here as a pedophile and sexual predator of an extremely unpleasant sort, in addition to his other wrongs. At this point the novel flashes back to James’ childhood as the unrecognized natural son of Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Hill and his struggles with the army and as a deserter, before the requisite happy ending of sorts for most of the characters, anyway.
This novel is an example of fiction that could only have been written in recent times. For one, few people would have thought it worthwhile to write about the life of servants on their own terms as the subject of literary fiction, except insofar as they aspired to or belonged to a higher class, or interacted with a higher class as romantic objects, or were themselves the subject of their author’s memoirs, none of which is the case here. Likewise, the author has somewhat strident views on contemporary culture, and so there are vigorous portrayals of masterbation, homosexuality, and the threat of rape and sexual abuse portrayed here that add to the novel’s considerable cringe factor. This is a novel that seeks to deconstruct in several fashions the sort of nostalgia that we have for the Regency period in terms of the morality of ordinary people as well as our desire to identify with the gentry and aristocracy of that period rather than their hired help, who are more likely to have been our ancestors and those whose lives most closely mirror our own. Those who want a corrupt contemporary view of the Regency period that seeks to present the other side of the story will appreciate this book, but those who want either romance or uprightness will be advised to look elsewhere.
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