Jane Austen is my jam. I love her work. I make a point of re-reading at least one of her novels every year. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice so many times now that I’m not sure I’m even reading it anymore as much as I’m turning the pages as I work my way through memorized passages.
But, with a couple of exceptions, I’m not a fan of Jane Austen knock offs or continuations. I did enjoy P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberly and once I was totally into the story as seen from Darcy’s perspective (Darcy’s Passions, catchy title right?). But in general, these aren’t my thing. I know there are whole series based on the continuation of Darcy and Elizabeth’s story but I just can’t. Best not to get me started on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies thing.
All this to say that the idea of the Pride and Prejudice story as seen from the point of view of the Bennett family domestic staff intrigued me. Jo Baker’s Longbourn sounded like an ideal mix of Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey, which we’re all into right now.
I got it for Christmas from my mom and didn’t even pretend like I was going to savour it. I cracked that baby in the car on the way up to our holiday retreat. I was done with it the next day.
Longbourn focuses almost exclusively on the domestic staff of the Bennett family. Mrs. Hill, the cook and general housekeeper who has had a secret dalliance with the master of the house; Sarah, the housemaid who desperately wants to be free of a life of service and is determined to marry out of it; Polly, a junior housemaid, taken in from the local orphanage; and James, the handsome and mysterious, (but super helpful) new footman.
We do get a highlights tour of the plot points of Pride and Prejudice, at least the ones where a servant might have been present. But mostly the story focuses on Sarah and her relationship with James, using the Pride and Prejudice story as a kind of anchor. I wasn’t too keen on the characterization of Elizabeth, but from Sarah’s viewpoint she must have been kind of a silly girl who constantly muddied her petticoats.
The story’s point of view changes a few times – we start with Sarah’s life as it is, understanding that this wasn’t the life that she was meant for but things changed, then Mrs. Hill takes us back and clears up some things for us and we end up with James, in his life before Longbourn, before swinging back to Sarah to wrap things up.
This book was clearly meticulously researched. The amount of work that must have gone into looking at the lives of domestics in Regency England, the processes that saw clothes washed, food prepared, clothes made etc – it was insane. Although these passages tended to reinforce the idea that the Bennetts were actually dirty (thanks Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice), an idea that I abhor (I prefer my Bennetts as they are in the BBC production), it was an interesting look at life as it was.
Overall, I thought the idea was an original one and I enjoyed the story but it didn’t engage me like the original. And I’m not sure I can forgive Jo Baker for keeping Mr. Darcy a hardass.