Some years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for the third or fourth time, and so enjoyed my time in the world of the novel, that I thought I should like to spend some more time there, specifically by way of Longbourn by Jo Baker. The “upstairs-downstairs” premise intrigued me, especially in light of my enjoyment of the 1910s-20s-set Downton Abbey. I was well aware that Austen’s world only represented a small slice of all the possible experiences of Regency England, and very curious to read a novel representing the lives of the “downstairs” staff at the Bennet’s home, Longbourn. (And yes, it did take me well over a year before I returned to Longbourn. I make plans, but the follow-through…)
In that particular goal I was not disappointed. The novel opens with wash day, and the detail which Baker incorporates quite naturally into the scene both speaks to the level of research she must have completed as well as informing the reading just how physically difficult life could be for the poor and working classes of the pre-electrified era. The novel was also a compelling read, tying in cleverly to the source material. Baker knows Pride and Prejudice quite well; she picks up on (and quotes, at the start of each chapter) little details from Austen that I had not fully noticed before. In one particular scene, as the young ladies of the house are greatly anticipating the Netherfield Ball, the weather prevents them going into Meryton themselves, and so, Austen tells us, the “very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” Baker fills in the rest–it may be too wet for refined young ladies, but not so for the housemaid; she it is who must make the muddy, soaking trek, for new decorations for ladies’ dancing shoes must be had. This may strip the “romance” from the “world of Austen,” but it fleshes out an era that many of us may only know via period film or novels.
However, I am reminded again–or maybe just finally forced to admit–that commercial historical fiction just isn’t for me. (I qualify because I have found some more “literary” historical fiction, such as The Bluest Eye, more compelling.) No matter how well researched, there always seems something just a bit “off,” a hint of the social mores or biases of the writer’s own time period that ultimately takes away from my enjoyment of the story. I can’t point to anything particular here (the way I can with Year of Wonders), but there’s just this niggling feeling that the 21st century has crept into the plot. And perhaps I bring that in as the reader as much as the author has. So while I feel I could recommend it to a fan of the genre, I think I can safely leave my reading time for other literary horizons. Maybe Austenesque satires? I do have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my shelves…