What do you get when you mix “Downton Abbey” and Pride and Prejudice? The answer comes in the form of British novelist Jo Baker’s newest offering, Longbourn, which, perhaps not surprisingly, has already been optioned for film.
Spinoffs and sequels to Pride and Prejudice are a dime a dozen, so it takes something quite extraordinary to make readers take note. In 2011, suspense sovereign P.D. James managed it by adding a murder mystery into the mix. Baker’s tack is slightly less gruesome, though perhaps no less grim: Working within the framework of Austen’s novel, Longbourn shifts focus and brings those who toil behind the scenes—the household servants—to the forefront.
But this is not a straight retread. Baker does not attempt to emulate Austen’s writing style, and her story fits in the novel’s framework while being completely original. Lizzie, Jane and Lydia (along with many other characters readers know and love) still pop up, but Longbourn is primarily the story of housemaid Sarah, who toils endlessly for the comfort and care of others. Her days are filled with tasks that make her stomach curdle and her joints ache, and though Sarah dreams of one day having something—or someone—to make her life feel full, she fears that all her future holds is the bleak emptiness of servitude. Enter an intriguing, but infuriatingly taciturn, new footman, and suddenly Sarah is left wondering if happiness might be within her grasp.
Like the novel that inspired it, Longbourn is a love story, but it is also more than that. Ruthlessly unromantic at times, Baker burrows through the froth and frivolity of upper-class life and grounds her characters in harsh realities, allowing for a powerful exploration of the prevailing social issues of the time as faced by the lower classes. Sarah suffers from chilblains, doesn’t get enough sleep and deals with chamber pots on top of it all. Though this gritty realism may turn off some readers, it elevates the book and sets it apart from its source material. Following in Austen’s footsteps is no small feat, but it is one Baker accomplishes with aplomb. Both Austen devotees and readers unfamiliar with the original will find that Longbourn is a robust, compelling novel that easily stands on its own.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Jo Baker for Longbourn.