Book Review

Longbourn by Jo Baker

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Title: Longbourn
Author: Jo Baker
Publication Info: Knopf Doubleday 2013
ISBN: 9780385351232
Genre: Historical: European

 Book LongbournThe hardest reviews to write are the ones wherein you're attempting to articulate a feeling of decided “Meh.” I am meh about this book. I was continually curious about the history even while I was horrified by how difficult and painful the work was. I am one of those who really likes Pride & Prejudice and an account of the same time period of the story from the perspective of the servants belowstairs sounded so interesting.

If you're expecting the P&P story to be told from the belowstairs perspective, though, you'll be disappointed. The events of P&P, such as Lydia's disgrace, Jane's engagement, and Elizabeth's eventual marriage are in the book, but they're distant and secondary to the story of Sarah, one of the two maids in the household. Mrs. Hill is the housekeeper and cook, and Sarah and Polly are the young women, both orphans, who work and live at Longbourn caring for the family. Mrs. Hill is marred (to Mr. Hill, obviously) and Sarah and Polly share a bed high in the attic servants' quarters. The story focuses on Sarah and her life, and her feelings and experiences as she does the day-to-day holy crap exhausting work of caring for a household.

The story is told in three “volumes,” and takes place over the period of time in the original story, plus a little extra. If you love P&P, you'll probably really enjoy this alternate perspective, but you will come out of the experience likely despising Mr. Bennet. In this novel, his story is expended substantially, and not in a good way.

The alternate perspectives are illuminating even when what the reader learns is rather ghastly. The servants worry about the future of Longbourn and their lives there, as much if not more than the Bennets. The marriage of Mr. Collins to Charlotte Lucas is accepted as a favorable outcome, especially by Mrs. Hill, who, though gruff and firm, worries about Sarah and Polly and their futures, knowing that she and Longbourn are their safety in the world (which is not kind to unmarried women out on their own). But beyond that, everything that's charming about Elizabeth, for example, is horrible for the servants. Her habit of wandering around and getting her hem soaked in mud is exhausting for the household, because Sarah and Polly have to try to boil and scrub the stains out of her dresses and petticoats. The arrival of Mr. Collins is dreaded by the servants because that's another person whose care and comfort rest on the staff, with the additional pressure of making sure everything is perfect for him so they, the household staff, make a positive impression on their future master.

Mrs. Gardiner's leaving her children with the Bennets and taking Elizabeth is equally exhausting, and neither character is portrayed as winningly as they were in the original. By far the most anger and spite is directed at Lydia, whose dirty clothing Mrs. Hill has to wash after her return from her hasty marriage. Wickham is worse than the original, in a creepy and awful sort of way, and Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingeley are so austere and important, Sarah feels invisible when they're around. As a result, Darcy and Bingeley might as well have been invisible in the story.

There are some broad parallels to the original text, too: one possible suitor is not what he seems, and Sarah does not realize this until nearly too late. Other people around her suspect the true nature of that person's character, much as others know the truth about Wickham and don't reveal it in the original.

The below stairs plot introduces a few new characters, such as James Smith, a young man who is hired as a footman, and whose history is somewhat mysterious. The third volume of the story is an enormous infodump retelling of his history, and I felt as if the book were saying, “Ok, here is why you should have lots of sympathy for James, and this and this too and this and this happened and then this and also this happened and oh, my gosh, his life was hard. CAAAAAAAAN YOU FEEEEEEEEL THE SYMPATHYYYYY?”

The problem was, I already had sympathy for him. By the time I understood the entirety of his life and backstory and how they were so painful and awful, I was left with all the grief and misery. The ending brought Sarah and James together so close to the ending, it was too little and far too late.

My conclusions from this book:

1. It sucked being a household servant at that time. It was exhausting, wearying, dirty, disgusting never-ending work. This is not news, but when the bulk of the story is made up of Sarah's routine and never-finished duties and the painful backstory of James, Mrs. Hill, and the others, happiness seems a long and impossible way off, which I suppose is how they would have felt. It made the happy ending less happy, though. This is not a happy-sigh kind of book

2. The happy ending is minimal, as I said.

3. Mr. Bennet is a horrible human being in this story.

4. There is no justice or balance of circumstance in the narrative to take the sting out of the reality of the servants' circumstances. For many of them, happiness is not an option. It's painful realism.

5. I'll be honest: I didn't understand the ending at all. Were they safe? Did they have a place to be? Or were they going to be transient and unsafe forever? It was unsettling. If that was where the story ended, what was the point of everything that happened before? (I realize this makes no sense but hey, if you've read it and can explain the ending, I'd be happy to hear your take on it.)

6. This book is filled with all the unappealing and unattractive parts of life at that time. The description of the smells alone made me a little queasy. It's unflinching in its details, and that won't appeal to everyone.

And that's where I felt the book fell short. The details were numerous – the scene where Sarah makes soap out of a dead sow's fat is both fascinating and repelling – but the characters didn't measure up to the richness of detail.

If a degree of interest is presumed in the reader due to this being a P&P retelling, that's fair. But I needed additional characters of interest to read about, not just characters of exhaustion (Sarah and everyone else) and mystery (James, Mrs. Hill) to keep me interested. At times I felt the characters, especially Sarah, were vehicles to demonstrate that Servants At That Time Had A Hard Life, and Here Are More Details About That. She was too often a vehicle to illustrate the time, and not a character in her own right. When she was a character, any growth she might have experienced in her own narrative was cut short by something from the original P&P. This was more a story about the life of the servants than about the servants themselves, and as a result was less satisfying for me. In this book, I found a lot of historical facts and experiences, but I didn't read a full story of characters, and I missed that part most.


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    Hmm. I was thinking of reading this one, but it sounds like it may have to be a library read, and not right now. I’m NOT in a good headspace for grim. o.O

  2. 2
    sandyl says:

    Glad I reserved this from the library instead of purchasing it. But, darn! I was really hoping for a better read.

  3. 3
    denise says:

    it’s been optioned for a movie—maybe this will be the rare case where the movie is better

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    It’s funny, there are so many other glowing reviews of this book in different publications, and that always makes me wonder what went wrong for me.

    I think part of the problem is that if you as a reader arrive with Expectations due to this being a retelling/alternate POV of Pride & Prejudice, you won’t leave with that happy, fuzzy romance feeling when you reach the end. All the bleakest and saddest things happen in the last third of the book, and the ending isn’t as complete and reassuring as I would like.

    So perhaps either I’m the wrong reader for this book, or I brought the wrong expectations based on the fact that it was an alternate retelling of P&P. Either way, it was not my thing, alas.

  5. 5
    CarrieS says:

    Actually, I think I’ll like this book, since one of the things that bugs me about historical romance is the idealization of the time periods.  I don’t mind a sad book if I know what I’m in for but I HATE a sad book if I’ve been led to expect a happy one.

  6. 6
    Dread Pirate Rachel says:

    Two things:

    First, I read this:

    CAAAAAAAAN YOU FEEEEEEEEL THE SYMPATHYYYYY?

    to the tune of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which is, I hope, the spirit in which you intended it.

    Second, I sometimes wonder about these books that focus on the disgusting bits of life like the soap making scene, how much of the characters’ reactions are rooted in modern sensibilities? By which I mean, yes, to us soap making is disgusting, etc., but it was still a thing that people did and had done for centuries. I suspect that it was seen as more routine and less repulsive when it was a familiar chore (kind of like scrubbing a toilet—not pleasant, but also not vomit-inducing for people who are used to it).

    Disclaimer: I haven’t read this book, so I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Also, I love Mr. Bennet, and I won’t be reading this because I can’t handle the butchery of a favorite character.

  7. 7
    Lorraine says:

    I thought that this was an excellent book—but I did not read it as a romance, I read it more as literary fiction.  I was not expecting an HEA, so I was not disappointed in the ambiguity of the ending.  Actually, the ending is a lot happier than what you often find in non-genre fiction. 

    I almost didn’t read this book because I’ve read way too many P&P re-tellings.  I had a librarian friend (I’m a librarian as well) tell me that it was a beautiful book and I should try it.  I’ve had long discussions about this book with other people who love P&P and we found this book intriguing with its look at the world around P&P.

    I don’t actually find Mr. Bennet as a terribly nice or warm person in Austen’s written form of P&P, so I don’t have trouble with his characterization in this book.

    So, as a romance reader, I agree with many of Sarah’s feelings about the book—it is kind of grim. But, I enjoyed this look into a world that we don’t usually see.

  8. 8
    laj says:

    I’ve read a couple negative reviews about Longbourn. It sounds like it might have been written for the Downton Abbey crowd.
    I imagine being a servant in Mrs. Bennet’s household would be a crappy job and I have to say……I’m not interested in reading about it.

  9. 9
    sandyl says:

    This book was just reviewed at Dearauthor.com. It is an interesting review, especially after reading Sarah’s review. Jayne gave it a a B+.

    I think Lorraine is right—this is not a romance book and you may be disappointed if you have those expectations.

  10. 10
    chacha1 says:

    Great review of another book that I shall not read.  :-)

    I heartily disliked Mr. Bennet in P&P (I generally dislike characters who are users and abusers, and I always thought he qualified, despite the attempt to dress him in flighty charm).  But seeing him taken down is not a sufficient inducement to read what sounds like a prescription for depression.

  11. 11

    It’s not a romance, as others have pointed out. As someone who’s done a lot of research on Georgian English servants I have to say the research was spot on. The writing is fantastic. I thought this book was brilliant, easily one of the best things I’ve read this year

  12. 12
    Claudie says:

    I personally thought it was brilliant – it’s very humane yet unflinching in its depiction of 19th century life. It’s not a romance, but I did find it quite romantic. I loved Sarah and her practicality and how her little flirtation with Ptolemy Bingley contrasted with the more inherent, consuming connection with James. I find most Jane Austen adaptation or appropriations are pretty horrid and unconvincing but this totally captured my imagination and rather brilliantly- like Wide Saragasso Sea for Jane Eyre- provides a wholly unique perspective on P&P.

  13. 13
    Isobel Carr says:

    I made the mistake of trying this based on the rec over at Dear Author. Wow. Ahistorical trainwreck is the kindest thing I can say. The attitude of Sarah is extremely modern (she clearly thinks being a servant is demeaning), and there’s no recognition that she actually has a very plumb position, given the alternatives (agricultural worker, mine cart mule, etc., all of which would have back breaking in comparison). I was REALLY hoping for a great belowstairs romance, but his was just not it.

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