Book review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

This past week I finished Longbourn by Jo Baker. Pretty much every rave review you may have heard about this book, including the NYT review, is justified.

I won’t try to write a better review than so many others have done, so I’ll just summarize what makes this book (::cough:: a published fanfic, by the way) stand out — which is, in essence, an A+ job of integrating period detail without coming off as the dreaded “author showing off research,” specifically for two areas:

  • One: Lives of domestic servants in the early 19th century; i.e., being doomed to drudgery and second-class status for your entire life. In particular, what it’s like to serve a family of seven, seven days a week, without indoor plumbing, electricity, refrigeration, or child labor laws.
  • Just to make it absolutely clear, that’s seven days a week of emptying your employers’ chamber pots and having very little hope that you’ll ever be able to find another livelihood that doesn’t make your life worse
  • Try to imagine how much it would cost today to pay a live-in, full-time servant. Guess how much it cost back then. No, you’re not thinking small enough.
  • Think small enough that it’s pretty much impossible to ever save up enough to get your own place or start your own business, and that quitting your position is about as reckless as packing all your belongings in a backpack and setting off to hitchhike across the country (without any such thing as a cell phone, or any telephones at all, for that matter. Or any type of media to broadcast your face and info should you come to a sudden and violent end)
  • Two: the Atrocities of War, especially of that time period, with some special focus on:
  • The mandatory term of service (eleven years)
  • The effects of moving a large army around a country, inevitably consuming (like parasites) all the resources of each town they come across and leaving the residents starving or (already, or soon-to-be) dead
  • I particularly appreciated the insight to the likely scenario of starving civilians prostituting themselves for anything to eat, and soldiers taking advantage of that and then refusing to give any form of payment

I realize this list makes it sound like a very grim book, but it wasn’t! There are just flashes of painfully accurate realism, which is the mark of a very good book, especially one of historical fiction, that makes you really feel what it must have been like to live in that era and to be profoundly grateful for all you have today. Especially modern appliances and toilets.

There were also lots of delightful insights into more complex cultural situations, like that of Ptolemy Bingley (born of a slave woman and the Bingley patriarch, now employed as footman to the Bingley family, with dreams of opening his own tobacco shop someday; I was really rooting for him and Sarah to end up together), and the Hills’ marriage of convenience, due to Mrs. Hill being in love with Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Hill being profoundly uninterested in women. I loved the little asides about his trysts with neighboring field hands, and especially the circumstances of his death.

As for the main plot: I love how the character of James was developed, how cautious and deliberate he was about everything, and the care he took with Polly. Sarah was an excellent protagonist/POV character, because she’s so understandable to modern readers. She doesn’t have wild dreams, but even when the manual labor sharply decreased with the move to Pemberley, you can understand her wanting more from life than to be bound always indoors, tasked with sewing ribbons back onto petticoats that may never be worn again. So I’m glad she took the initiative to leave employment, as horribly risky as it was.

I do feel the ending was a little too tidy (again, rooting for Sarah/Ptolemy to grow to love each and form a partnership), but still, a very good book worth reading.

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