A mixture of emotions are brought forth by Jo Baker’s Longbourn novel. Some love it, some dislike it. A tale about the servants of Pride and Prejudice’s protagonists, with maid Sarah in the lead. A pleasant and easy read, a typical maid romance, but as a story based on Austen’s work not quite exceptional. For those who are curious this is a nice book to fill the time.
In short, the reader follows Sarah, a maid serving the Bennet family. She’s bright and clever, a girl who is destined for more than the servant life she lives and who wishes to travel outside of Longbourn’s walls. The sudden arrival of a new servant by the name of James causes complications in all of their lives. The Charm
The reader is given an insight into the lives of the hidden members of Longbourn: the servants. With Sarah in the lead and Polly as a close second. One of the beautiful things about this story is the way Jo allows the reader to follow minor characters from the original Pride and Prejudice tale. For example, we get more insight into the lives and feelings of Mr and Mrs Hill. She also shows characters with a minor role in Austen’s book in a more complicated light. An example of which are Mary Bennet and Mr Collins. And this of course is a bit tricky as she defines certain traits of their character by giving the reader new information about them, their past and their feelings – new interpretations which might differ from the view a reader originally had when reader P&P. The story in itself is quite straightforward and simple, with a big reveal that can be easily guessed and is therefore not a complete surprise. But the elements of the dreary servants’ daily lives (an element up for criticism and discussions) turn the tale into a standard bouquet one: a maid wishes for a better life, struggles through her daily chores, meets a mysterious and handsome stranger, and finally escapes from her gloomy predicament. It is, in itself, a story with a happy outcome, although predictable, and it might therefore not appeal to everyone’s palate. That said, those who are less interested in complicated or surprising plot lines and who enjoy the style of the chick lits and Harlequin romances might enjoy this tale to the fullest.
This story takes place during the events of P&P and extend a bit beyond them, describing what happens to the characters that have been followed in the epilogue. It is interesting to read a story in which the main characters have turned into minor background roles. Although if you lack the knowledge of the original P&P tale their characters might need a little more introduction and the construction of the tale might be a bit confusing. It is a story best read by those who enjoyed the original Austin tales and, as mentioned before, someone who is into maid romances.
Though the characters of Sarah, Polly and James are interesting to follow, they still feel like Mary Sues inserted into a fanfiction, especially Sarah who mirrors a maid version of Elizabeth. If you expect a story that is similar to P&P or continues in that same atmosphere then you would better look elsewhere.
Jo’s writing is eloquent, beautiful, a pleasure to read. Her characters are unfortunate and struggling but trying to keep their spirits up. The idea of Longbourn behind the scenes, seen from within the kitchen, is an entertaining one and there’ll be plenty of Austin fans who will enjoy this novel, if started with the right expectations.
This book is not in my collection and upon seeing the title I felt I had to add it. The reason I got the title in my hands was because it’s one of the few P&P related books in our library’s collection and I therefore assumed it to be special enough to have been added to the collection. I am aware that my expectations were raised because of it. But after reading Longbourn I am not as certain if I still want to add this novel to my collection of books.
I quite enjoyed the tale, but compared to other P&P related works I have read this one doesn’t quite float my boat. The reason is simple: I felt that the overall tone of the story was a bit depressing, despite the happy ending (which was described as inevitable to end that way, which sort of took the edge of the happy note again). On top of that I am not quite the lover of the romance novels I have compared the tale with earlier and although I can enjoy a ‘maid wanting to do better’ novel at any time, this version only felt different because of the mentioning of the P&P characters, but not made itself distinct in any other way.
My opinion: Not a special book, but enjoyable and with its own atmosphere.
[ 2013, Knopf ]