Thursday, May 8, 2014


by Jo Baker
Knopf, 2013. 352 pgs. Fiction

In general I tend to not be a huge fan of 'fan fiction' or spin offs from classic literature. But I had enough friends recommend Longbourn, that I decided to take chance, and I'm very glad I did. Longbourn is a revisionist retelling of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', told from the perspective of Sarah, one of the housemaids. While this is certainly a riff on the 'upstairs downstairs' motif, Baker does a nice job with a historically accurate look at what life of a house servant was like during the 19th century; lots of laundry, cooking, emptying chamber pots, and little sleep.

The story mentions highlights from the 'Pride and Prejudice' plot, but does not follow it in great detail and instead takes you fully into the world of Sarah and her fellow servants, painting a somewhat darker background to the well loved story. Sarah's quiet world is turned around with the appearance of a mysterious new manservant who shows up out of the blue. Of course there is romance, and of course there is misunderstanding and mistakes, following the Austen tradition; but Baker, while writing in a style influenced by Austen still establishes her own distinct voice. I listened to the audio version and quite enjoyed it, the reader delivers and understated and polished performance.


1 comment:

Breanne said...

This is the story of the downstairs servants of Longbourn, focusing on Sarah, a housemaid who serves the Bennet family. In the context of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs, of which I have read many, this is stellar. Beautifully written, researched, thought-out, imagined, etc. However, most Austen-spin-off literature is really mediocre, so when this one comes along and it's so polished and vibrant, it really shines in the comparison. But looking at this book on its own, there are some shortcomings.

There is a long sequence that takes place completely apart from the events of the Pride and Prejudice novel. While helping to provide historical context and a fresh take on the time period, ultimately it is distracting from the story and disjointed in general. Perhaps a more abbreviated version would have helped.

The first half of the book closely mirrors Pride and Prejudice, and Sarah's story was intermingled with the Bennet's beautifully. About halfway through, Sarah becomes completely disinterested with the entire rest of the Pride and Prejudice plot, ironically during the most interesting parts of P&P. I get that the author is making the point that servants have their own lives, and this book is about Sarah, not Elizabeth, but if the main plot of P&P had been relevant AT ALL to Sarah's story it would have helped.

That said, I still enjoyed this book and the audio production was beautifully done. For the most part, it's an interesting and thought-provoking look into one of literature's most favorite households.