REVIEW of Longbourn, by Jo Baker

longbournThe premise of this book was appealing to me, and I found the book itself to be executed moderately successfully. In Longbourn, Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice is retold through the eyes of the servants in the Bennet household.

Sarah, the housemaid who has been serving there ever since she was orphaned at the age of six, is the heroine of the tale. Although her character is likable, there is a pale wash of discontent over all aspects of her life. She broods constantly on the indifferent fate that leaves her lugging buckets and soaking laundry in lye, while the Miss Bennets lead a life served to them on a silver spoon.

As the story commences, Sarah’s world consists of the young scullery maid Polly, the respectable housekeeper/cook Mrs. Hill, and the aging butler Mr. Hill. On a whim, Mr. Bennet decides that it is time to hire a new manservant, and so James Smith–a handsome footman with an enigmatic past–joins the staff at Longbourn, exciting Sarah’s curiosity and providing a catalyst for the action of the story.

Although the story of the original novel underpins this one, the drama surrounding the Bennet daughters was little more than background material for the drama in Longbourn’s kitchen. The “upstairs” characters were rendered as flat and insipid as the few references to the housemaids and Mrs. Hill in the original Pride and Prejudice narrative. The only character from the original novel that had a further fleshed out role was Mr. Wickham–and not in a good way! If possible, one comes away from Longbourn feeling that fellow to be even more depraved than Austen intended him to be!

The pacing of the whole book was fairly slow. It took a long time for anything to “happen,” and although the descriptive passages were well-written, I wanted a little more action to the story. Part of the “drag” to the story was the author’s thorough depiction of the dirtier tasks undertaken by the Regency era servants–it is unlikely that you have ever read a book where the emptying of a chamber pot figures so heavily. And while I am sure that much historical research was done into the milieu of the tale, the thorough exposition of such mundane tasks (and Sarah’s detailed resentment of them) felt like an unnatural part of a servant’s day. If you’re used to doing a chore, you just do it and get on with it.

Some reviewers have complained about the “head-hopping” of the third-person omniscient narrative, however, I thought the point of view was well done and in keeping with a narrative style Jane Austen would have used.

The last third of the book had a surprise twist to it that took several of the characters in new directions–more than that, I cannot say–directions which will either delight Austen aficionados or insult Austen purists. As Jane Austen fan fiction goes, this is one of the most literary versions of the hallowed tale that I have read.

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