Oh Longbourn. I wanted so hard for us to be friends. I even think we were friends for a while, but then you spat on that friendship by putting all my favourite characters into a bag, shaking them up and then raping their original personalities for good measure. No friendship can survive such a betrayal, even though we started out on such good terms. I am afraid that I simply do not like you and we should go our separate ways.
Plot summary: It is washday for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and bleeding. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.
For in Georgian England, there is a world the young ladies upstairs in the drawing room will never know: a world of poverty, love and brutal war.
In case you haven’t gathered, Longbourn is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the Bennetts’ servants. Or that’s the theory anyway, but we’ll get to that. I’m one of that rare breed that’s up for a spin-off, despite loving the original beyond all rational comprehension. I have 65 copies of the damn thing, and I’m still willing to read a retelling because I love the characters. I wish more than anything that Jane Austen had written a sequel; as she unfortunately refrained, modern retellings will have to suffice.
I hadn’t actually heard of this one until Ellie pointed it out to me in WH Smith’s last week but I knew it was instantly a must-have. It’s such a unique concept and the few pages I skimmed were written so beautifully that I brought it home and read it right away. Genuinely, I loved it. The prose could have been Austen herself it’s so descriptive and lovely. It flows, unlike some of the other spin-offs I’ve read with their clunky language and anachronisms. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the best I’ve ever read in that respect.
The research that has gone into Longbourn is also astounding. It opens with Sarah and the other household staff cleaning the Bennett’s petticoats; I’m hardly an expert in Georgian laundry but the detail is just wonderful. The novel as a whole does give a feel for the era in a way that other books just don’t capture.
Unfortunately, the prose and the detail just can’t rescue this book from the abyss. It’s pretty damn bad. It’s sold as the servant’s perspective on Pride and Prejudice, but it does so only in the loosest way possible. Don’t for a minute think that this is about Elizabeth or Jane, or even Lydia – it’s very much about the servants and their petty issues.
Which would actually be fine, if they were servant-related issues. Instead we’re treated to Sarah’s whining about the Bingley’s black footman and her petulant sulking with Mrs Hill. The familiar events of the original are mentioned almost in passing, as a background to Sarah’s incredibly unrealistic life. I really don’t think it could stand up as a story in its own right – only the ties to the original kept this afloat and that was a near thing.
There’s sex, war, violence, slavery… everything that Pride and Prejudice lacked apparently. Clearly Austen must have just forgotten to put it in, so let’s heap it in with a shovel! I’m not sure if maybe the aim was to show that the ‘upstairs’ girls don’t have to think about these things and ‘downstairs’ girls do, but it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t fit in a novel that tries to recreate Austen. It’s actually quite graphic in parts and I really didn’t appreciate trailing through the account of a soldier in the Napoleonic War. If I wanted to read historical military fiction, then I would – I really don’t need to be surprised by the mass murder of children in an Austen recreation. Jesus.
Sarah herself is pretty horrendous. She’s alternately whiny, stubborn, stupid and naive. There are literally no likeable qualities about Sarah and towards the end she makes a decision so catatonically stupid that I wanted to thwack her with the book so she could feel my pain. I know literary heroines aren’t renowned for their good sense and rational decisions, but COME ON.
Just wait until you see what they’ve (the author is a They now, apparently) done to Mr Bennett. The other original characters are more or less true to form, to be fair. Jane, Elizabeth, Lydia, etc… they don’t feature much in the book but they act reasonably as expected when they do pop up. Mr Bennett though, absolutely not. I just don’t understand why that was necessary – there’s no way on this Earth that That would have happened and it really, really frustrates me.
I struggled to finish this book as this story continues past the end of Pride and Prejudice, after Elizabeth and Darcy (he’s in the entire book once, for less than a page) are married, and it really flounders without the support system of the original. I was desperate to skim-read the last chapter or two, just because it dragged on beyond all logical necessity.
To conclude, Longbourn starts very well indeed, with beautiful prose and thorough research. Unfortunately, it quickly sinks into being sappy and boring with one-dimensional, irritating characters and it simply would not be able to stand on its own feet without its links to the original.