Author: Jo Baker
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Readers: Production coordinator Joanna, entrepreneur Julie J., social worker Erin Go Bragh and writer Nan.
Summary: 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.
Our Take: It’s a split decision. Half our readers loved this “downstairs” story but the other half were underwhelmed.
Longbourn has been described as a re-imagining of the Jane Austen classic Pride & Prejudice, but with a downstairs Downton Abbey twist. And while that makes for a snappy logline, really the book is much more than that. Anyone hoping to catch much in the way of Lizzy and Darcy action will be duly disappointed. Although P&P does bleed into this book, Austen’s characters have but minor roles here and are by no means the epicenter around which the plot revolves. Rather, they sort of orbit quietly without ever stealing the limelight of the real story, Sarah’s story.
Sarah is an orphan who was taken in at a young age to work for the Bennet estate, and immediately we’re drawn into her small world as the book opens with laundry day, the busiest day of the week. Probably one of the most interesting elements to the book for me was being privy to the myriad things, big and small, that servants like Sarah had to do on a daily basis in order to keep the household running smoothly. All the little things that go on beneath the surface that you wouldn’t otherwise give much thought to when reading a book set in Regency England.
Sarah yearns for a little excitement to break up the monotony of the interminable days of service. She is a thoughtful and industrious housemaid, but curious about the world beyond the confines of Longbourn. Between the arrival of a mysterious new footman and a mild flirtation with a former-slave-turned-servant at nearby Netherfield, Sarah’s small world cracks open. Caribbean sugar plantations and the American slave trade are just some of the issues Sarah finds herself examining, and these topics add an intriguing dose of reality to what is otherwise seen as a halcyon era of genteel manners and romantic courtship. What we come to learn as things transpire is that the goings-on downstairs can be just as compelling (if not more so) as those happening upstairs.
The book is beautifully written and offers a fascinating look at what life was like for the other side. It has enough going for it that anyone, Austen fan or otherwise, would find much to enjoy and like about it. Finally, I must give kudos to the Knopf art department for producing a cover that Vermeer would have been proud of. It’s gorgeous in its simplicity and looks as though it were inspired by the great Dutch painter himself.
I have read many Jane Austen spin-off novels over the years and I had high hopes of liking this one! After reading it, however, I have very mixed feelings about it. On the positive side, I thought that the various story lines were interesting and I liked the idea of looking at the story of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants. On the negative side, I didn’t think the idea was very well executed. In the beginning I found it difficult to determine how the protagonist, Sarah, felt about any of the characters in the book. She seemed to vacillate from one extreme to the other frequently and I found that confusing. I also thought it took a long time for the story to become interesting. The book really didn’t begin to hold my attention until around halfway through. I found the “flashback,” which told some of the backstory of the relationships between characters, to be a bit confusing – I thought it would have been better suited somewhere else in the book, and when I first started reading that section I didn’t know who I was reading about because it referred to the character by a different name. Last, I thought the book ended very abruptly and didn’t really satisfy my interest in knowing what happens to Sarah in the end.
Baker pokes behind the curtain of life in the Bennet household, revealing the life of their servants and the very hard work they endure to make life elegant for Elizabeth and her sisters. Who cleans out the chamber pots, scrubs the dirty petticoats, makes the tea and runs the love letters back and forth between the country estates?
The story is beautifully written and compelling, with its multiple love interests, rich setting, and deep characters. Equally fascinating are Baker’s new insights into the familiar characters from Pride and Prejudice (you won’t see Elizabeth or Mr. Bennet in the same way ever again!), and also the depth she brings to Sarah and the other servants, whose desires for love and adventure are just as strong as those of the family they serve, and whose lives are equally ruled by convention and by class. Baker’s intriguing suggestion is that Sarah, who can work, is actually more free than the Bennet sisters, who are trapped by their status in lives that revolve around catching and keeping a husband. Quite simply, this novel is a must-read for any Austenphile!
Jo Baker’s highly-anticipated Longbourn tells the “below stairs” version of Pride and Prejudice from the Bennett servants’ point of view. As a big fan of Jane Austen and P&P, I really wanted to like this book. Sadly, I didn’t.
My high hopes for Longbourn were quickly weighted down by Baker’s lengthy descriptions, which rambled on for entire paragraphs. I felt disconnected from Sarah, the novel’s heroine, even though I wanted to empathize with her. Although the story does pick up pace in the second and third sections, I spent the first third of the novel waiting for something — anything — to happen. I felt like Baker did a lot of telling, rather than showing, and I had to force myself to keep reading.
Longbourn doesn’t possess any of the wit or humor that characterize Pride and Prejudice. While I appreciate the fact that Jo Baker is not Jane Austen and doesn’t attempt to imitate Austen’s style, as a reader I still expected at least a little bit of the P&P charm to carry over to Longbourn. Instead, Baker seems intent on making life in Regency-era England seem as gritty as possible, dwelling on the miseries of mud, animal waste, chamber pots (and their contents), washing soiled linens from “monthly courses”, etc. I understand that Sarah would have dealt with all of this as a maid and that Jane Austen skimmed over such unpleasantness, but Baker emphasizes it to the point where I wanted to yell, “I get it! Life was gross!” Additionally, Baker weaves in themes of abuse, rape, prostitution, venereal disease, pedophilia, closeted homosexuality, and secret illegitimate children. Again, I understand that people are imperfect and that Austen ignored these things, even though they undoubtedly existed, but it seems to me like Baker had a checklist of controversial topics and tried to squeeze in as many as she could.
I didn’t completely hate Longbourn. Even though I think it was poorly executed, I still like the idea of telling a well-known story from a different point of view. I appreciated the depth that Baker brought to Mr. Collins’s character and storyline, and I was intrigued by her depiction of a larger-than-life Mr. Darcy, who is so powerful and commanding that Sarah feels completely invisible in his presence. These small high points, however, were not enough to make up for the tedium of the rest of the novel and the disappointment I felt when I finished.
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