Longbourn by Jo Baker
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.”
This is another of those novels that I wanted to like more than I actually did. I adore Pride and Prejudice—it’s probably my all-time favorite classic. I love the wit and humor in the original, and the characters are like old friends. When I saw this Longbourn was coming out, and that it was being billed as “Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey”, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. And now I’m questioning why so many people have raved about it.
It isn’t that the book is badly written. On the contrary, it does indeed give a detailed picture of what the life of a servant was like in 19th century England. Baker spares no time in introducing readers to the myriad tasks taken on by the main character Sarah, including the washing of the ladies’ “monthly napkins”. While occasionally distasteful to read out, the information is given gradually throughout the text so that it doesn’t ever feel like the author is infodumping.
Baker also touches on something that Austen didn’t; namely, the effects of the war with Napoleon during this time period. Austen obviously mentions the militia and doesn’t hide the fact that soldiers are billeted all over the country, but she never does more than that. Baker examines the state of the country, and specifically of its men, during this time. Again, the nastier aspects are not ignored, an example of which is Sarah inadvertently witnessing a soldier being flogged.
Speaking of nasty, Baker seems to go out of her way to portray the Bennet family in the worst possible light. I understand that servants may not have always had a shining view of their employers, but from everything that I have read about the time period, the Bennets would have been considered to be very lenient employers. The narrative, though, makes a point of talking about the family casually leaving clothes on the floor, or being gluttonous, or simply not taking note of the work that’s being done for them. I have to wonder why the author is spending so much time casting these characters in a negative light.
The real problem with this novel lies in the conceit that it is, in fact, set during Pride and Prejudice. More to the point, it’s set within the Bennet household, intimately so, and so I felt that the events belowstairs should link more firmly to events going on upstairs. Sometimes they do, as when readers see Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, fretting over making sure Mr. Collins is satisfied with her service since he will be her new employer someday. But for the most part, these characters interact very little with the characters and events from the original source novel.
Because of this, I question why this story was even set smack in the middle of Pride and Prejudice. There is no compelling reason for it to be so, as the plot concerning the servants has no reliance on what happens with Lizzy and Darcy and the rest of the Bennets. To me, it felt like the whole thing was meant to capitalize on the popularity of Pride and Prejudice without really attempting to create a story that dovetails with it at all. It was hard for me to care about these newly fleshed out characters when the ones that I’d already come to know and love were almost absent from the story.
In my opinion, this novel isn’t nearly as good as the advance reviews made it out to be. I think that fans of Downton Abbey who have no prior experience with Pride and Prejudice might be the best audience for this book. Otherwise, I think aficionados of Lizzy and Darcy will be disappointed in this story. Longbourn isn’t a terrible book, but it isn’t the best addition to the Pride and Prejudice pantheon.