Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Longbourn, Jo Baker- Review
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice,the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Much has been made about this book since it's original release, and it was always on the back of my need-to-read list, so the last time I was offered it by Random House I decided it was time to advance it to the front and finally make the time to read it. Granted that was ages ago, but you know, my to-be-read list is a lot like the DMV, sometimes the line takes ages, and sometimes you luck out and zip right through, there's no accounting for it.
It seems important to preface this review by coming clean and admitting that Pride and Prejudice is very near and dear to my heart. The BBC mini-series came out when I was in high school, and although I knew nothing about Jane Austen at the time, I loved a good period drama (oh the costumes!) and I watched the whole thing with baited breath. That valentines day my mom found an antique leather copy of both Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park and it became official, I was a Jane Austen devotee. I've been to plays about her life, read non-ficitional books about the time period she wrote in, about her letters, about the kinds of carriages people rode in, I designed a Jane Austen period dress for my then boyfriends high school graduation (I started with a vintage belt, and tea stained some very expensive silk in the bathtub to match. My mom had to leave the room, she couldn't watch.), clearly I'm smitten. I won't even go into the first year English angst I had when I realized that most university students do not appreciate Jane Austen.
Anyhow, as a Downton Abbey fan as well, I loved the idea of a kind of mash up of sorts. Sadly I found Longbourn a very disappointing read.
It's hard to say exactly why Longbourn just didn't hit the mark for me. Although it followed through with a very similar Darcy/Elizabeth love story, and although Baker was very thorough in fleshing out the world of a servant in a smallish country manner, the overall effect was a bit bleak for me. Granted a servants life was in many ways, more bleak than that of a middle class woman, however I think this is where Austen's superior writing skills come into play. P & P is not just Elizabeth and Darcy's love story, it is not just a window into life in that time period. Pride and Prejudice has longevity and mass appeal because of it's mix of humour, longing, and sensibility. Elizabeth is appealing not just because she is the dark and lively sister of intelligence but because she is the voice of reason and calm in a household of many excitable women. When she has her moments of profound passion, be it negative or positive, with Darcy, it has impact, it reaches you.
Sarah is not an unlikeable character, but she gets carried away and does rash things. She gets drunk and runs through the dark to Mr. Bingley's house to kiss another servant. Which brings me to another big difference between Longbourn and P&P, Sarah's relationships always go past the point of propriety. Mention is made that it's no big deal as long as she doesn't end up pregnant, however this is deeply contrasted by Mrs. Hill who clearly shows us this is not the case. It is no surprise that much of the tension leaves the relationship as soon as that boundary is broken, but because of it being a period piece as well, it also undermines some of the believability. I don't doubt servants followed a code of conduct that was somewhat looser then their superiors, but the length Baker takes it to seems too far to me. It also changes the character of Sarah, who starts feeling more like Lydia than Elizabeth.
There is also a remarkable lack of humour in this book. To the point where Baker actively tries to change Mrs. Bennet from being a running joke to being someone who has been poorly used and very misunderstood. Although I can see the appeal in trying to add back story to the original (ie: Mrs. Hill and Mr. Bennet), it also changes the tone of the story significantly. With no comic relief to the servant's stories, they become very bleak indeed. Covered in aches, pains, chill blains and poorly mended clothing, worked half to death, all of them (every single character!) in unhappy relationships or hiding the relationships they are having or have had, there is absolutely no relief to the drudgery.
Not a terrible read, but not at all what I expected, and certainly not one I would pitch to lovers of P & P or those looking for a similar read.
Longbourn, by Jo Baker
Published by Vintage Canada, October 2013
My copy kindly provided by the publisher