Like any dutiful regency romance reader I owe my love of the genre to Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion will forever be the romance novels of my heart and the gateway drugs to my historical romance addiction. That said, I’ve never been an Austen fan-fiction reader, preferring instead to imagine my own after-the-happily-ever-after for Anne and Captain Wentworth, Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. But I’ve been dying to read Longbourn since it was first published in 2013.
Set in the world of Pride & Prejudice, Jo Baker’s Longbourn tells the story of the servants in the Bennet household: housemaid Sarah, housekeeper Mrs. Hill, her dutiful husband and groundskeeper Mr. Hill, little servant girl Polly, and the mysterious footman James, who’s arrival sets a series of events into motion that will change the modest day-to-day lives of everyone at Longbourn. Unlike other P&P fan-fic stories and novels, Longbourn received the kind of media attention and reviews that you’d expect from a well-written piece of fiction, which is likely a result of Baker’s focus on the hidden world of “service” rather than the main P&P characters. Yes, it’s a class-conflict novel–how could it be anything but?–but the underlying characters and their romance and heartbreak make it so much more than a servant-master oppression piece.
At the center of Longbourn‘s story is Sarah, a young housemaid who dreams of more. She faces the classic Austen conflict of choosing between men: the aforementioned James and Ptolemy, the footman of mixed heritage employed by the Bingleys. Ptolemy represents all the excitement and possibility Sarah yearns for but has never known: sugar plantations in the West Indies, London’s busy streets, and perhaps most importantly, a future out of service. His charm, good-looks and winning personality are in contrast to James’ guarded demeanor, which riles Sarah up despite her best efforts at nonchalance and indifference. It’s a classic Austen love triangle: Does she choose the handsome charmer or the quiet thoughtful young man?
In the background are all the P&P characters we’ve come to know and love, although some are presented with a twist. If at all possible, Wickham is even more loathsome than we all thought he could be; the Bennets more dysfunctional; and Darcy even more impressive/scary. You’ll not be disappointed in Baker’s characterizations of the Bennet girls, and will love the little insights Longbourn offers into their private lives.
I will warn you: The third and final volume in Longbourn is a bit of a departure from the rest of the novel and comes with some rather horrific depictions of war and violence. Be prepared, but don’t let it stop you from enjoying this rare glimpse into the downstairs world of Jane Austen’s regency England.