Longbourn by Jo Baker*
Knopf, October 8, 2013 (Historical Fiction)
Rating: I’d go there again!
Longbourn is a historical novel that’s been receiving a lot of buzz and made the October 2013 LibraryReads list. Naturally after hearing that Longbourn is a return to Pride and Prejudice I was intrigued. The fact that Longbourn focuses on the servant staff was another added layer that promised for an interesting take on a classic. Generally, when an author takes on a classic, it’s tough to beat. People view the classics as timeless, and Pride and Prejudice is no exception; people don’t want you messing with such literature. However, Longbourn is a fabulous return to the classic novel and I think fans of Austen will enjoy it and I think there’s also a lot here that will appeal to those who aren’t fans of Pride and Prejudice. Ultimately, Longbourn is it’s own novel, a separate entity from the classic and if you recognize this, you will be delighted.
Sarah is a young housemaid working for the Bennett family at Longbourn. Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, took her in as a child and has taught her everything she knows. Unfortunately, Sarah is not content with her lot in life; she yearns for more, she wants her world to be larger than her existence in the countryside. Sarah’s monotonous days seem to be at and end when two things happen: first, the arrival of a new footman, James, and second, the Bingley’s have come to town, bringing with them a handsome young servant, Ptolemy, who quite intrigues Sarah. Suddenly, Sarah’s life seems a whole lot larger and she’s almost swept off her feet by Ptolemy and his grand plans, if it weren’t for James and his convincing her to stay at Longbourn.
Longbourn is beautifully written, the pages flow by with it’s simple and powerful language. And this simplicity changes how you look back on Pride and Prejudice. It’s not the flowery language that you encounter in other romantic historicals because readers are focused on those are behind the scenes in those novels. Sarah’s not waiting for her Mr. Darcy, she’s not dressed elegantly in the hopes of catching a spouse, in stead she’s happy for the cast offs of the Bennett sisters. Sarah’s not educated like the Bennett ladies, and this lack of education shows in her language and what she’s allowed to say in comparison to gently bred young ladies of the time. This alternative viewpoint did take away some of the romance of Pride and Prejudice, it had to. Being a servant isn’t romantic work, and Sarah resents having to wash Elizabeth Bennett’s dresses after she’s trudged all over the countryside. This picture of Elizabeth being different from other young women seems romantic in Pride and Prejudice, but in Longbourn you can see the consequences of Elizabeth’s eccentricities and how it impacts those around her. I certainly think of Pride and Prejudice differently after reading Longbourn, and it’s certainly not a bad thing.
What I also loved about Longbourn was Sarah’s relationship with James. James is such a mystery; there’s obvious some dark secret in his past and a reason why he showed up at Longbourn of all places. Sarah was a perfect counter to the serious James. Sarah was a dreamer and willing to take a risk on him even though it was likely a bad idea. This was a quiet romance and I loved it. I think some could claim that the conclusion was overly optimistic and unrealistic; however, I think what readers know of Sarah and her dreams of more, it’s understandable of her to leave a good position and seek out what she wants. Sarah is ahead of her time and unwilling to compromise on what she wants in her determined and quiet way. She was a great character, and in her own way, reminded me of an Elizabeth Bennett, which may have been the authors intent all along.
Overall, Longbourn was a fantastic read. It was quick to get through, the story and the characters were compelling and the historical details were interesting. I recommend it to historical fiction fans, but especially those who like Downton Abbey and the contrast between the upper and serving class.
On a final note, for those who are disappointed that Mary Bennett didn’t get her happy ending, you should check out Pamela Mingle’s The Pursuit of Mary Bennett, which is due out in November 2013.There’s not serving class point of view here, but readers get to see into Mary’s head and find out if she get’s her happy ending, and I always thought she deserved one.