Longbourn by Jo Baker
Publication Year: 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Emma Fielding
Snarky Subtitle: Why You Should Thank The Good Lord For Washing Machines
WHY?: I am practically an Austen fan-fiction aficionado. I read most any Jane Austen re-telling, re-imagining, alternative perspective novel I can get my hands on and this particular book got a lot of praise a couple of years ago.
The first thing to say about Longbourn is that it is such a brilliant, genius, fantastic idea. It follows along the timeline of and takes place in the same space as Pride and Prejudice but it focuses instead on the small staff of Longbourn house rather than the daughters of the house. It is easily the best and most inspired "re-telling" I've read. This is probably because it really isn't so much a re-telling as it is its own story set against the backdrop of a more famous tale.
The main player is Sarah, a young maid in the Longbourn household. Despite her youth, she has been at her job many years and she is getting restless with her lot in life as she enters adulthood. About this time, a new footman, James, arrives bringing with him a relief from tedium but also confusion and mystery. Rounding out Longbourn's staff are the motherly housekeeper/cook, her husband an aged and rather dull butler and a much younger housemaid still learning her way. They form a kind of family of their own though they all seem to harbor secrets and have personal dramas.
I was a little nervous going in. I've read one other book by Jo Baker, The Mermaid's Child, and it was rather grim, dark and depressing, certainly nothing like Austen's witty confections that always have happy endings. My worries were mostly unfounded. This is in no way the light-hearted romance of Austen's writing but it is also not overly grim. It is dark and hard in a way that makes sense when telling the tale of people who spend almost every waking moment of their days serving others desires and needs.
In fact, I think that Baker's very different style, the fact that she does not try to ape Austen, is one of the book's strengths. It sets it apart from Pride and Prejudice, makes it its own entity while still touching on the characters loved from P&P. It's the different tone that makes it possible for Baker to highlight how thoughtless Lizzie and Jane and all the Bennets are of their servants without causing me to become overly protective of those beloved characters.
Beyond the interesting story told about the servants of Longbourn, the book is also interesting for showing those interstitial moments for the P&P cast - what they are doing in between the moments of great import in their own stories. It also suggest some character-deepening ideas about the secondary players in P&P, particularly Wickham and Papa Bennet. I appreciated these speculations and thought they made a lot of sense based on what we learned of them in Austen's story. I've read a few reviews from Austen purists that weren't particularly pleased with the liberties taken, particularly with the characters but while I love Austen a lot, I enjoy when people take her material and get creative. It didn't bother me one bit and in fact I loved how different sheBaker goes with her perspective but be aware if you are someone who gets shirty when other authors mess with Austen.
For me, the one slight misstep the book took was when it took a tangent to tell James' back story. It was surely interesting enough but it is the only part of the book that significantly jumps away from the timeline and events of Pride and Prejudice. It felt jarring and the book works best when it stays connected to its "source".
FINAL VERDICT: A creative and well-written alternate perspective take on Pride and Prejudice which balances well the telling of it's own tale while shadowing the old. 4 out of 5 stars.