longbournIn general, I am a bit suspicious of the cottage industry that has sprung up around Jane Austen. I don’t usually read books that are “sequels” or “spinoffs” of classic literature (with some major exceptions!), and I think Jane Austen has seen a particular pileup of this sort of thing. So when I was given Jo Baker’s Longbourn as a gift this Christmas, I wasn’t sure whether or not I even wanted to read it! But, wishing to be as amiable as Mr. Bingley, I decided to give it a try.

Longbourn is Pride and Prejudice from another point of view: that of Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, Polly and James. Who are they? The heart of Longbourn, of course. They are the people who make the meals, who clean Elizabeth’s petticoats when they’re three inches deep in mud (because she’s such a fine walker), who build the fires and replenish the drinks and kill the chickens and polish the furniture and mend the shoes and feed the pigs and haul the water and empty the chamber pots and go into Meryton for the letters that come from the Gardiners. They are the servants.

One of the things I immediately liked about this book is that Baker has created her own, entirely original novel. She uses Austen only for structure, like the boning on the bodice of a gown. Once you accept the premise that servants are people, too, the novel unfolds beautifully, in ways you almost can’t believe you didn’t see before. There are touchstones here and there — this when they go to the Netherfield ball, that’s when Elizabeth goes into Kent — but the family actually appears fairly seldom. It’s a little like opening up a familiar piece of machinery to see how it works, and finding a completely different piece of machinery inside. Baker allows you to realize fairly quickly that everything you see in Pride and Prejudice is made possible by the people you meet in Longbourn.

I also enjoyed Baker’s strong sense of realism. There’s just not a lot of upward mobility as a servant at the turn of the 19th century, even if you have dreams, even if you’re strong-willed, even if you’re in love. Baker shows us what the possibilities are and are not, without being either ridiculously optimistic or too grim. She opens up the corners and consequences of Pride and Prejudice (like Elizabeth’s petticoats, or like Mr. Bennett’s “surprise” for the family that Mr. Collins is going to visit, giving the servants no time to prepare.) She shows us human beings with all their desires and mistakes and compromises, and she happens to observe it in the kitchen and the barnyard instead of in the drawing room.

Baker has a lovely, gentle prose, nothing showy. She writes with a slight touch of formality, as if immersing herself in Austen’s world had given her writing just a slight sheen of Austen’s touch, but her style isn’t nearly as sharp or as funny. Instead, it ripples on, almost an underground style, revealing by erosion rather than by incision. Her characters are reserved and independent, often silent, and give themselves only when they must or when they desire to. The prose reflects that.

When I came to the end of this novel, I thought at first that the ending seemed a little abrupt. I realized, though, that I only felt that way because life in the barnyard and the kitchen goes on and on: Baker found a graceful way to bring this story to a close, but I could have read and enjoyed this novel for weeks. If you’ve been on the fence about it, I do recommend it, entirely on its own merits.

This entry was posted in Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Longbourn

  1. I’ve seen this book about a lot recently (I think it’s in the Richard & Judy book club selection for the Spring) and like you, have been a bit reluctant about it as it’s a spin-off. There seems to be a mountain of Jane Austen spin-offs and it’s hard not to dismiss them as another piece of fan fiction. But your review of Longbourne has made me reconsider – it sounds like this is one of the gems amongst the rest. Will certainly be keen to read it now! Thanks for the review.

  2. gaskella says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading this book – not heard a bad word about it, including your great review.

  3. Steph says:

    I was suspicious of this one for the exact same reasons you were, but a friend assured me it was not at all “fan-fic”y and that despite a loving homage was really its own book entirely. I’m really glad I decided to at least try it because I really wound up enjoying it, finding it to be a bit like a Downtown Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs twist on my beloved P&P. I thought it had all the elements of an Austen novel without trying overly hard to be an Austen novel, and I felt it added a nice depth to Austen’s depiction of the world, which was very rarely grim or gritty.

  4. Lisa says:

    I am also uninterested in the sequels and spin-offs (not to mention the books with Austen herself as a detective, which rather bother me), but this sounds like something different , and intriguing. I’m glad she didn’t try to channel JA’s voice or mimic her style.

  5. Jeane says:

    I have not yet read Pride and Prejudice but this does sound lovely, interesting- but I must read the one it was inspired by, first!

  6. heavenali says:

    I hadn’t fancied this either, but have heard so many good things about it that I downloaded it to my kindle last week.

  7. Pingback: Jo Baker: Longbourn (2013) | buchpost

  8. Noted! I’ve never been into the Jane Austen sequels or spin-offs, or even adaptations unless earnestly abjured to try them, but I will keep this in mind. (Very good deployment of “cottage industry” here btw. I do not see that phrase used often enough.)

  9. Pingback: Die Sonntagsleserin – 3. KW 2014 | buchpost

  10. Style by erosion rather than incision – I love the sound of that. This is already close to the top of my TBR but I think it is going to have to be my next read, because everyone seems to have enjoyed it so much. It’s such a surprise to think about what happens to Lizzie’s dirty petticoats, to be reminded of all the work happening behind the scenes of a novel like P&P.

  11. Iris says:

    I think this means that this definitely goes on my wishlist! I agree I am usually on the fence about Austen sequels or retellings (and yet I do read a few of them each year *sigh*), but this just seems too good to pass up on.

  12. aartichapati says:

    Oh, I’m so glad! I’m waiting for this on audiobook at the library and hopefully will get it within a reasonable amount of time. I am excited for the downstairs story!

  13. JaneGS says:

    I enjoyed Longbourn also, and enjoyed your review of it. I especially liked your comment about P&P providing the structure, like the boning on a bodice. :)

    Glad you liked it and lovely review.

  14. Christy says:

    Thanks for posting this review! I am also wary of all the Austen spinoff and other tangentially-related novels. But this sounds really intriguing, especially with the Bennetts being just off-screen for the most part.

  15. Mona says:

    So glad you read this! I’ve seen it everywhere but have been hesitant to try it. However, I trust your opinion so I will be adding it to my to-read list.

  16. Pingback: Jo Baker: Longbourn (2013) – buchpost

Leave your comment here, and feel free to respond to others' comments. We enjoy a lively conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.