Tag Archives: pride and prejudice

Below Stairs at Longbourn

The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes. . . . She knew they weren’t as rarefied as angels, and so they just couldn’t look her in the eye.

There have been countless riffs on Pride and Prejudice, from bodice-rippers to mysteries. Usually I avoid these like the plague because I would rather not see a beloved novel or its characters toyed with by a less talented writer. That is, until Longbourn was published to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Jo Baker chose to focus her story on the Bennets’ servants, who are little more than set dressing in the original novel. In other words, they could be fully imagined without stepping on Austen’s toes.

Jo Baker writes in a style reminiscent of Austen without resorting to mimicry. In doing so she manages to capture the spirit of the world while still feeling fresh. The story centers around Sarah, the young housemaid. Sarah grew up as a servant at Longbourn, with the housekeeper Mrs. Hill as a surrogate mother of sorts, but longs to see the world outside of house and village. With the arrival of a new footman, Sarah’s monotonous life begins to change. I love that Longbourn helps me look at a familiar story from a new perspective. Since the servants are largely invisible in Austen’s portrayal of this world, the reader doesn’t stop to think about the labor that makes the Bennets’ lifestyle possible.

Although Longbourn could be enjoyed without being a Pride and Prejudice aficionado, there’s extra fun for lovers of the source material. Baker provides guideposts as to what point Longbourn is at in the original story, such as when the servants reference a dance in Meryton or the impending visit of Mr. Collins. However, these events take on a different meaning below stairs. For example, the Netherfield ball is a great inconvenience since the servants must prepare five young ladies to impress the Bingleys on short notice. Sarah must slog through muddy fields in the rain just to pick up adornments for the girls’ dancing shoes. 

Pride and Prejudice takes place in a harsh era of European history, but the Bennets are completely secluded from war and violence. Even the militia in Meryton seems to exist only to provide suitors for the girls. Since the servants are not as protected from cold reality, Longbourn can also provide historical context that is perhaps hinted at, but never spelled out in the source material. Baker’s aim isn’t to tear down favorite heroines—in fact, she humanizes often mocked characters—but she frames them with a wider lens. A work that can stand up next to Pride and Prejudice is a great achievement. I would encourage any Austen fan to take a look at Longbourn.


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What the Kids Are Reading

My year with the Minnesota Reading Corps definitely renewed my love of children’s books. At my bookseller job, the children’s section is my favorite place to be. Some of the books are cute and clever, while others are just plain weird.

Magic Kitten

You say magic, I say demonic. There’s a whole series of Magic Kitten chapter books, as well as Magic Puppy, Pony, and Bunny. And yes, the animal on the cover always appears possessed.

Biscuit's Pet & Play Easter

In which Biscuit has improbably calm reactions to chicks and ducks. Then again, children’s books are not exactly known for their realistic depictions of animals.

BabyLit P&P

Okay, this one is a little silly, but also legitimately awesome. The BabyLit series uses classic novels as the basis for simple board books. This one counts to ten Pride and Prejudice style. My favorites are “2 rich gentlemen,” “4 marriage proposals,” and “10 thousand pounds a year”!

Where is Baby's Valentine

Where Is Baby’s Valentine? Where Are Baby’s Easter Eggs? Where Is Baby’s Pumpkin? Where Is Baby’s Dreidel? Perhaps the real question we need to ask ourselves is, “Why do we keep giving things to baby?” She loses everything!

Baby Loves to Rock

If you want your kid to rock, you should start preparing them early. This board book has bold illustrations and genuinely clever plays on words. “The skunk likes punk. . . . The weasel likes pop.” The weasel also happens to be dressed like Michael Jackson.

George and Martha

George and Martha books are classic, but as an adult they leave me with many questions. Is there some hippo-sized sexual tension between these two friends? And what’s with the story about George peeping on Martha in the bathtub?

And that’s what the kids are reading!

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What I Found in Boxes of Childhood Books

This month my elementary school of employ is having a Read-a-thon, and naturally the Reading Corps members have been helping out. It involves students keeping track of their reading hours, both at school and home. There’s also a book exchange, where people can donate used books and students can take them for free.

I got to thinking about the boxes of books from my childhood that were sitting in the storage space at my mom and stepdad’s house. Surely there were books that I could easily part with. Last weekend I went home for a visit, giving me the perfect opportunity to dig through those boxes and bins. I came to the realization that I was a very lucky child to have access to so much reading material. I also discovered some very amusing items, which I will share with you here.

I had more books based on TV series than I would care to admit. The most blatant is this impressive collection of books based on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Granted it was my favorite show for most of my elementary years, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. As I recall, most of the books were atrociously written. This cover amuses me the most because it’s clearly just a poor quality screenshot from a Season One episode.

I didn’t have cable as a child, so I never actually watched this show. I was given History Mystery as a birthday present, perhaps around age ten. I remember distinctly that my uncle Tom was quite enamored with it and kept saying, “Shelby WOO!” Emphasis on the Woo, in a tone worthy of a bachelorette party.

I began to exhibit signs of the English nerd at an early age. I loved the PBS show Wishbone, and the Pride and Prejudice episode was my favorite. (To other kids, probably “that boring one with Wishbone talking to people at fancy parties.”) I was also the proud owner of this Great Illustrated Classics edition. Jane Austen, you speak to me at any age.

I was a big fan of Michelle Kwan, having followed her religiously during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. (Don’t even get me started on my Tara Lipinski grudge.) However, even my obsessive ‘tween love couldn’t get me to like this book. It’s all about setting goals, working hard, and following your dreams. Except boring.

By far the strangest discovery was My Crazy Cousin Courtney Comes Back. By the author, you will be glad to know, of My Crazy Cousin Courtney. I had never read or even laid eyes on the first book. I believe this was given to me as a gift because — whoa! — my name is also Courtney! She is apparently a Beverly Hills Brat, so you can see how much we had in common. Do you think I gave this one away? Of course not! I’m holding on to this treasure for life.


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