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Longbourn by Jo Baker (August 2014 Reading Circle)

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IT IS ASSUMED YOU HAVE READ THIS BOOK BEFORE READING THIS THREAD, THEREFORE SPOILER TAGS MAY NOT HAVE BEEN USED IN ORDER TO FASCILITATE EASIER AND MORE OPEN DISCUSSION

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK AND INTEND TO, PLEASE READ NO FURTHER!

 

Longbourn by Jo Baker

SYNOPSIS: A brilliantly imagined, irresistible below-stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice: a story of the romance, intrigue, and drama among the servants of the Bennet household, a triumphant tale of defying society's expectations, and an illuminating glimpse of working-class lives in Regency England.

The servants at Longbourn estate--only glancingly mentioned in Jane Austen's classic--take center stage in Jo Baker's lively, cunning new novel. Here are the Bennets as we have never known them: seen through the eyes of those scrubbing the floors, cooking the meals, emptying the chamber pots. Our heroine is Sarah, an orphaned housemaid beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When the militia marches into town, a new footman arrives under mysterious circumstances, and Sarah finds herself the object of the attentions of an ambitious young former slave working at neighboring Netherfield Hall, the carefully choreographed world downstairs at Longbourn threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, up-ended. From the stern but soft-hearted housekeeper to the starry-eyed kitchen maid, these new characters come vividly to life in this already beloved world. Jo Baker shows us what Jane Austen wouldn't in a captivating, wonderfully evocative, moving work of fiction.

 

Some basic questions to consider:
1) Who was your favourite character and why?
2) Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?
3) Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?
4) Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?
5) Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

 

 

Some further questions to consider:

6) Did you read Pride and Prejudice prior to reading Longbourn? How do you think your prior knowledge (or lack thereof) affected your enjoyment and understanding of the events in Longbourn?

7) What do you think of having specific days for specific household chores (e.g. laundry on a Monday, etc)? How well do you think that would contribute to efficient running of the household? And in a modern household?

8) How do you feel about the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, given what we learn about Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Hill (the cook)? Does this change how you felt about Mr. Bennet prior to reading Longbourn?

9) How do you feel about Sarah's changing affections? What do you think attracted her to Ptolomy? Why do you think her affections are so easily rerouted to James?

10) Given James' mistreatment and experiences, how did you feel about his final confrontation with Pye?

11) Discuss the role of household staff in the novel. How do the roles differ between town and country?

12) How do the characters (or our understanding of them) change throughout the novel? In whom do you see the greatest change? Is that change for the better or for worse? In what way?

13) How does seeing the story from the point of view of the servants affect your liking or disliking of the original characters? Do you feel more or less sympathy for some of them? Who, and why?

14) In what way (if any) does seeing how the original Pride and Prejudice characters treat their servants change how you felt/feel about them?

15) "They clipped past the orchard, in profile and oblivious to the housemaids: Sarah felt herself fade. She could see the leaves and branches through her hand; the sun shone straight through her skin." - How invisible do you think the servants are to the upper classes? How do you think that might affect their self esteem? DO you think the upper classes ever consider how it might make their servants feel?

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The thread is now open. Has anyone read the book? Anyone still reading it? Anyone want to leave their thoughts?

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I'll kick off by answering a few questions to begin with, then I'll let some others jump in for a bit to see if any discussions start...

 

1) Who was your favourite character and why?
I liked Mrs Hill best. She was so compassionate and understanding, yet unafraid to stand up for what she thinks is right.

2) Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?
I hated when Wickham was coming on strong with young Polly. It wasn't that I disliked that part of the story or anything, it was more his actions made me squirm. I wanted to punch him square in the face!

3) Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

This was the first book I've read by this author, but not the first spin-off, nor the first spin-off of Pride and Prejudice. I've read a few that are connected with P&P (as well as mash-ups).

4) Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

Not really. I found it a very easy and enjoyable read overall.

5) Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

Yes - I would certainly pick up other books by this author, whether or not they had anything to do with P&P.

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Has anyone else read it? Or is anyone reading it just now? Please do join in - I'm feeling a bit lonely in here all by myself! :(

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I totally voted for it - it's been on my TBR pile for a while and I nominated it. I was well chuffed when it won the poll.

 

I'll answer a few more of the questions just now and see if it entices anyone else to join in:

 

6) Did you read Pride and Prejudice prior to reading Longbourn? How do you think your prior knowledge (or lack thereof) affected your enjoyment and understanding of the events in Longbourn?

I have read P&P a couple of times and I think that it did help to have a little prior knowledge of the original novel, but at the same time, because each chapter started with a little hint at what was going on in the original novel at that particular time, and because P&P is a particularly well known story, it was made very easy to follow, even for people who came to this "virgin", as it were. I don't think it affected my enjoyment though - I liked it as a separate entity, AND as a companion piece.

 

7) What do you think of having specific days for specific household chores (e.g. laundry on a Monday, etc)? How well do you think that would contribute to efficient running of the household? And in a modern household?

I LOVE the idea of specific days for specific chores. In fact, I found a website (called FlyLady) that helps people get their housework organised so they can do it quickly and efficiently, and advocates concentrating on one area of the home per week, which is kind of similar. Personally, I long for a simpler lifestyle and I think I wold feel completely at home in a world without so many modern conveniences (I think I mentioned the same when we read The Little House in the Big Woods a while back). Hubby often comments I was born out of my time - LOL! Even in a modern household, I think many of us can benefit from an old fashioned set routine.

 

8) How do you feel about the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, given what we learn about Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Hill (the cook)? Does this change how you felt about Mr. Bennet prior to reading Longbourn?

It made me feel a little sorry for a man who is obviously disappointed in his marriage and would perhaps have married someone else given half a chance. I also felt terribly sad for him that he couldn't know his son while he was growing up, especially given the importance of sons in that time when it came to entailed inheritances.

 

9) How do you feel about Sarah's changing affections? What do you think attracted her to Ptolomy? Why do you think her affections are so easily rerouted to James?

I think many young women are attracted to exotic people, and in a time and place where every day is the same and you only ever see the same few people over and over again, seeing someone so different, both in appearance and attitude, has to be a bit exciting, especially when he shows some interest in her. I think Sarah realises, however, that her affection for Ptolomy is more like a passing crush than something that would be enduring, and once she has a better understanding of James, she sees him as someone worthwhile, with whom she could have a real, solid future, with mutual affection.

 

I'll leave it there just now and come back to the last few questions another day, in the hopes that by then a few more people will have finished reading and joined in. :)

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10) Given James' mistreatment and experiences, how did you feel about his final confrontation with Pye?

Pye was a despicable person and I reckon that if James hadn't done for him, someone else would have soon anyway. As it was, sooner or later, Pye would have done for James if he hadn't got in first, so it's probably just as well he did. I felt that Pye got what he deserved, even if it did have a long-term detrimental effect on James.

 

11) Discuss the role of household staff in the novel. How do the roles differ between town and country?

I think in the country, there were more menial jobs for the staff of a household, as there would be gardens and livestock to tend, eggs to collect, etc, whereas in town, there wouldn't be the need for staff to do those things. However, in town, a house of high means would do a lot more entertaining of impressive guests, so more visible household staff would be required in the form of butler, under butler, footmen, extra cooks; assistants and scullery maids, as well as ladies' maids and valets (a really large household in the country would need those things too, but I don't think they'd do quite as much entertaining as their town counterparts). in a household like that of the Bennet's, the staff seem to take on multiple roles, for example, James acts as a butler but also a carriage driver and footman, stable hand, and groundsman/gamekeeper - a more prestigious household would have had different men in each of those roles.

 

12) How do the characters (or our understanding of them) change throughout the novel? In whom do you see the greatest change? Is that change for the better or for worse? In what way?

I think the greatest changes come in Sarah and Polly - Sarah as she realises that people aren't always as they seem and that exotic doesn't always trump steady; and Polly as she matures and becomes a teacher with a steady temperament when she reclaims her name.

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Hi all, finished this earlier in the week. I was really looking forward to the book as "Pride and Prejudice is my favourite novel of all time. However I was disappointed by it in it's relation to "Prejudice".

I think that the parallels between the two stories could have been drawn a little better, or alternatively,  this should have been a below stairs novel without any reference to Austen's work. I think that it has been well researched, but I think that many writers "piggyback" the love many of us have for Austen's works so they become a guarenteed sale. Oftentimes they can feel a little strained for the effort. 

I was disappointed in the story-line between Mrs Hill and Mr Bennet, but my least favourite depiction was of Elizabeth, I thought Elizabeth came across in this novel as rather spoilt and a little uncaring. I think that her sparkle was not glimpsed in "Longbourn". Throughout the original work Elizabeth is light and bright, but she never swerves in her understanding of the importance of showing her subordinates a respect which is due to those in her employ. She seemed in "Longborne" to be careless of Sarahs duties especially sending for the shoe roses "by proxy". This happens in Austen's novel, of course (and at this point we are hearing the wry tones of Austen the narrator) but in "Longborne" it is ordered by Jane and Lizzy and struck me as being out of character. I imagine that Mrs Bennet would have been a more likely candidate for this sort of thing wanting her girls to appear to best advantage!!. Elizabeth is much more aware of sociey's responsibility to persons who are there to serve, as she is aware of the unrespectability shown by her own mother on occasion, and how the Bennet family are viewed by their social superiors. 

The depiction of Lydia was more in keeping I think and Jane...I suppose there really can only be one Elizabeth Bennet...!!!

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