Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Hardback UK book cover of Longbourn by Jo Baker

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. 

Read my review of Death Comes to Pemberley here.

Comments

  1. Laura says:

    Uh oh. This really does sound like an interesting premise but WHAT DID THEY DO TO MR BENNETT?! Except, don't worry, you don't have to tell me because there's only one way for a master-servant relationship to be, and it's totally rapey. (Am I on the right lines?)

    Thank you for reading this so nobody else has to, though. Way to take a bullet.

  2. Ellie Warren says:

    Oh that's a shame. I liked the idea of this but if the servant's story doesn't really tie in with P&P what's the point? They might as well written about any household at that time. I guess it was just a bit of a marketing ploy. Poor Mr Bennett!

    1. admin says:

      EXACTLY. I really liked the idea too, but it just couldn't have survived without the P&P link and there was barely any of THAT. It could have been any household and it SHOULD have been – the author could do what she wanted to the man of the house then, without dragging Mr Bennett through the mud!

      *scowls*

  3. That's a shame, especially as I have a review copy of this waiting. I think I would be cool with the inclusion of sex and war etc but not them messing with Mr Bennett's character. Not cool at all!

    1. admin says:

      I could accept the sex and the war, but it doesn't fit. At one point it actually changes to the soldier's POV and it's just… odd. And the sex/masturbation really just…. no. It FEELS like it was added for shock value, to re-emphasise the whole 'servants are different' aspect.

  4. Boo, I wanted to read this. I wouldn't mind if Pride and Prejudice was just an excuse for a regency "downstairs" story (I think you have to expect that) but I don't want to read the Bennet names attached to completely different or ill-formed characters. And your hints about Mr Bennet sound ominous in the extreme.

  5. Ellie says:

    I was so intrigued by this but no, not any more. To be fair I do think the whole upstairs/downstairs theme has been overdone now. And nobody messes with Mr B! He is totally my favourite. Thanks for reading this so I don't have to 😉

  6. Ellie says:

    Woohoooooooow now I really have to read my copy. Immediately. Ish. I'm sad that we bought the hardback together and it turned out to be shite, but OH THE FUN WE WILL HAVE TALKING ABOUT IT NEXT TIME. I don't want bad things to have happened to Mr B, because he is the awesomest! I'll read it, Hanna… I'll read it, and then in Leeds we will order hot drinks and you can vent your rage again. I so enjoyed pulling horrified faces while you terrified all the people sitting near us with your unstoppable hatred for those books. I LOVE YOU, DUDE. 🙂

    1. admin says:

      OH YAY, YOU'RE BACK! *squishy hugs* It's weird how much I missed your online presence 🙂 Are you doing Dewey this weekend?

      Emphasis on the 'ish.' It's not horrific enough for me to NEED you to read it, but a second opinion would be appreciated.

      Bad things don't happen to him, he DOES bad things. Which is actually worse.

      Don't forget the girl in the charity shop who is now more than aware of the horrors of blown-up chipmunks. Although that sounds like I dangled one in front of her face…

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