God I love this book.
In fact, I may love Longbourn more than Pride and Prejudice. I know, Blasphemy! But Baker uses Austen words (“The butler… Mrs. Hill and the two housemaids…”) as a launching pad for the contemplation of no less than the meaning of life. In addition it’s an amazing love story too! Swoon!
Also, I learned the word chilblain.
Jo Baker sets Longbourn in its historical home explaining the drudgery of everyday life for the servants. The amount of work required to maintain the modest Bennett household, all without any modern convenience of even 60 years ago, is stunning. But to see this book as a running list of chores is to miss the point entirely.
Longbourn is a philosophical treatise on work, love, and happiness masquerading as Jane Austen fan fiction.
I’m going to stop there. I’ve worked for hours trying to explain this book and write a “real” review, but honestly that last sentence explains it all. I won’t go on. My personal powers of persuasion can’t do it justice. Baker’s a genius. So I’m stopping.
O.k. Wait. Here are some quotations from the book to blow you away [and a little commentary]:
- From Sarah, one of the two housemaids, while balancing a chamber pot full of “night water”: “…this was her duty, and she could find no satisfaction in it, and found it strange that anybody might think a person could…” [Who can disagree with this? Throughout Longbourn, Baker works this interplay of work and identity which brings up so many questions for the modern reader: How does my work define me? Who am I without my work? What if I don’t want to be what my work says I am?]
- From Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper: “Work was not a cure; it never had been: it simply grew a skin on despair, and crusted over it.” [This made me cry. Actually it was more weeping.]
- “Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually, failed.” [Jesus, have mercy.]
- “Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?” [This is everyone’s hope, right? Right?]
- “Miss Lydia meant no harm. She never did.” [I kind of knew this]
- “Perhaps it was not an easy thing, to be so entirely happy. Perhaps it was actually quite a fearful state to live in…” [Yes! It’s terrifying because you're so afraid you’ll lose it, you can't enjoy it. See Brene Brown.]
And then there’s this gem:
- “Mrs. Bennett was not one to tiptoe around the edges of disaster, with one eye to the abyss and another to her own comportment; she plunged headlong in, and as she fell, took pains to enumerate the discomforts and inconveniences of the fall.” [Can you think of a more perfect description of Mrs. Bennett?]
Ok. I’m done now. For real. This book has everything. Everything! Social criticism, feminist theory, sexual and racial identity! Ugh. It’s brilliant.
But I haven’t even mentioned the god awful war that all those red-coated officers are dashing off to in Pride and Prejudice, and a soldier’s work and brutal duty. (Although, spoiler alert, Wickham is still an asshole.)
I’m going to stop now. Seriously. Just read Longbourn.
God I love this book.
A version of this review appeared here.