Review: Longbourn, by Jo Baker

longbournSynopsis: It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.

Title: Longbourn
Author: Jo Baker
Publisher: Black Swan
Pub Date: 1 January 2014
Pages: 448
ISBN: 9780552779517

Rating: 3stars

I’m going to have to start this review with a warning. If you are a die-hard Austen fan, you will probably not like this book. In fact, you’re very likely to hate it.

Luckily for me, I have only the BBC adaptation as a reference point (Pride &Prejudice is on my TBR list, obviously!) and, thus, I couldn’t be precious about Baker ruining a masterpiece.

Though the plot is heavily intertwined with P&P, you’re transported downstairs – to the world of the servants. Here, a hike in the country means hours of back-breaking washing to get the mud stains out. A romantic ball, a night spent waiting with the horses in the cold so that the family can leave whenever they wish.

Suddenly, the Bennet household doesn’t look so charming.

It took a while to accept the dirty, privileged, uncaring side to the Bennet’s. I’ve put Jane and Elizabeth (even the father) on a pedestal and to bring them back down to earth was difficult. But this is what I liked about the book. It put things in perspective and made everything seem more realistic.

I did, however, have a few issues with Longbourn; primarily that I didn’t like the protagonist, Sarah. I wanted to like her. I tried to like her. I just didn’t care about her enough; she was selfish, dull and, in my opinion, quite underworked. John Smith, however, was portrayed brilliantly, especially in the second half. In fact, I sort of wish we got rid of the whole P&P connection and based the story on him instead.

Yes, I realise the whole point was base it around P&P but, let’s face it, the novel was never going to stand up on its own when everything is so heavily incorporated into the Bennet’s story. John Smith’s backstory, on the other hand, was beautifully constructed but pushed aside for the bigger plotline.

Longbourn is an enjoyable read; it’s relatively well-paced, and gripping enough to turn the pages. Does it stand up as a novel in its own right? Probably not; without P&P’s plot and depth to support it, the novel is slightly more than a shell of a story. Did it have potential to be great? Definitely. So all in all it gets a 2.5 stars for potential and for John Smith.

Guess now I’ll HAVE to read Pride & Prejudice now.

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