Book Review - Longbourn by Jo Baker

longbourn
longbourn

If ever there is a novel that suffers from false advertising, it's Longbourn. Promoted as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, Longbourn has none of the wit of P&P nor the soap opera fun of Downton Abbey. I wondered about halfway through the novel why Baker even bothered to frame her novel around Austen's classic. Then I rolled my eyes at such a stupid, rhetorical thought. She placed her servants at Longbourn because Austen inspired fiction is a lucrative market. Longbourn, as good as it is, wouldn't have received half the press it did if it was a standalone novel about servants in Regency England. And, that's a shame, because Longbourn (★★★) is a good novel. Let's get the Pride and Prejudice connection out of the way: with the exception of one scene with Elizabeth, Darcy and Sarah, Baker's fictional housemaid, Baker is true to Austen's characters for the most part. Of course, Wickham is the bad guy, made even worse at Baker's fingertips. However, making these characters ones we know and love distracts from the story she is telling, instead of illuminating it or making it more interesting. There isn't enough of our beloved characters to make us happy and what there is makes us like them less. Though, if pushed, I suppose I prefer Baker's vague characterizations to other fiction which paints their personalities outside of Austen's lines.

But, to the story. Baker illustrates well the day-to-day grind of servants, from the backbreaking need to haul water, to the hand destroying work of laundry day, to the stomach churning chore of dumping chamber pots. Where Longbourn excels, though, is how disheartening working for others could be when you want more but have no way to achieve it, how trapped people of the lower classes were in their lot in life. Unlike Carson and Mrs. Hughes in Downton Abbey, these are not servants who take pride in their place in society. They are conscientious, do excellent work and do not shirk from responsibility but, Sarah especially, long to be free of other people's demands.  At times, Baker's prose strives a little too hard to be literary, but I appreciate her style nonetheless. She doesn't feel the need to spell everything out, but instead trusts her readers are intelligent enough to figure things out.