REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker
The publication of Jo Baker’s new novel Longbourn generated the same sort of excitement as the arrival of a single gentleman of good fortune. It has been described as being a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey. When we heard this premise, we were all admiration. What a brilliant idea! Two of the most wildly popular and well-known popular culture properties–now together! It might be the greatest idea since some genius combined chocolate and peanut butter. The Commercial Publishing Industrial Complex has predictably lost its mind over it; frankly, we are astonished that its publication did not rip open the fabric of the universe, creating a giant black hole that sucked us all into it.
While this soundbyte selling point makes it simple for publishers and booksellers, we think it has done the authoress a disservice. We think Ms. Baker was shooting for something less mercenary and more ambitious: the Wide Sargasso Sea of the Jane Austen oeuvre; by which we mean a paraliterature title that strives for literary achievement as well as, or perhaps even more than, popularity. We have long wondered why no one has written such a novel. Sadly, Longbourn did not work for us, either as ambitious literary fiction or as a P&P/Downton mashup. There is nothing of the elegance of Downton Abbey, and a Pride and Prejudice that we do not recognize.
The story takes place almost entirely belowstairs at Longbourn, domain of the long-suffering Mrs. Hill; the butler, Mr. Hill; the two maidservants, Sarah and Polly; and the footman, James. The foreground story is their melodramas and heartbreak (and there is a lot of both), while the familiar story of Pride and Prejudice unfolds in the background like a dimly heard radio play. Sarah is pretty much the main character. She is fascinated with one of Bingley’s manservants, a freed slave who impresses her with his sophistication and tells her stories of London. Sarah finds James annoying, and she is convinced he is a Bad Man who will cause trouble and wait a minute, haven’t we read this story before?
The link to Pride and Prejudice seems tenuous to us, other than perhaps the romantic triangle. The Bennets could afford more than two maidservants, and it’s silly to say otherwise. The Bateses in Emma could afford to employ a maidservant; surely the Bennets could employ more than two. If Ms. Baker truly wanted to tell the story of the servants of Pride and Prejudice–and link it to the wildly popular Downton Abbey–it would have been better to give the Bennets a fuller complement of servants. If she wanted to write about overworked servants in Austen’s time, don’t give them to the Bennets. Why not the Lucases, for instance? They are certainly involved in the main story; or perhaps another neighbor. If the idea really was that marketable mashup, it would have equal commercial potential marketed as a servant’s story in Jane Austen’s time, set in the world of her novels.
We are probably not the audience for this, being on record as unappreciative of Gritty Realism™. We acknowledge that it existed in that time, and we acknowledge that it is present in Austen’s novels if one looks for it; but Austen’s pen famously did not dwell on guilt and misery, and the darker aspects of her world are sketched in lightly, shadowing the background upon which her characters are drawn. Ms. Baker seems to be determined to inform the reader that life in that time–at least for the servant class–was dark, dingy, dangerous, unpleasant, painful–and there is nothing wrong with that, but if some information is enlightening, then too much becomes a blunt object concussing the reader. (One is sometimes truly stunned by the imagery: for instance, militia officers converge on the Phillips’ house like “lice on a beggar’s head.”) We struggled through this book, constantly pulled out of it by this determination to dunk Austen’s work in a literary mud puddle. It seems to us a subversion of Pride and Prejudice, not a celebration of it. No doubt that is purposeful, but it does not interest us; and marketing it to Austen fans seems disingenuous. There seems to be a determination to make us think ill of Austen’s characters for committing the sin of making work for the servants. If the somewhat sanitized version of Georgian/Regency England portrayed in many Austen film adaptations is overly romantic, wallowing in filth, poverty, and misery has a romance of its own that is equally dangerous.
We still like the idea of a P&P/Downton mashup, but we would have preferred something different: a properly big cast of servants and a jolly, rollicking tale of belowstairs hijinks. There would be work–hard work, sometimes dirty work, and all the squalid details of bodily fluids could have been worked in if absolutely necessary–but more importantly, it would have been fun, and the companion piece that Austen’s “light, bright, and sparkling” masterpiece deserved. Longbourn is ambitious and beautifully written; we wish we could like it, but we cannot.
An advance reading copy of Longbourn was provided by the publisher.