REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker


longbourn_cover 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.

10 thoughts on “REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker

  1. Sorry to hear you didn’t care for Longbourn. I’m much more tolerant of gritty realism :), so it might be more to my taste.

    > 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.

    Interesting point–the alternative is not having a job, which was far worse than not having to work.


    • Yes–there was an imposition of 21st century thinking and mores upon a 19th century book, and it was annoying and pulled me out of the story.

      As far as Gritty Realism™ goes, a little is fine, but I felt like my nose was being rubbed in it.

      I would have liked it a lot more if it had just been a story of servants in JA’s time, not tied specifically to P&P; or, as I said in the review, if it had been fun like P&P. Just not my taste or what I expected or hoped for.


  2. Thanks for this interesting and frank review. Despite it, I still want to read Longbourn, but I feel strangely encouraged at learning that the Wide Sargasso Sea of the Jane Austen oeuvre is still unwritten. There’s an opportunity for greatness, right there!


    • Hey–a lot of other people liked it more than I did, so go for it, if you want to read it!

      As for WSS–I would suggest tying it to Mansfield Park if you want that WSS-style postcolonialism thing, though of course the time period of WSS works better for that than MP. Or maybe the West Indian heiress in Sanditon? The “half-mulatto” Miss Lambe? I would totally read that book.


  3. Having read over half of Longbourn, this is the review I would write if I could write as well as Mags has. Longbourn is beautifully written, and has a fairly good plot and characters. But I felt beaten over the head with the griping and muck almost immediately. Perhaps when Jane Austen famously “lopped and cropped” P and P, she wisely deleted all the grime and dreariness of everyday life. She ended up with a brilliant book that is hard to put down. Reading Longbourn is very easy to put down and tempting to never pick up again.


    • I had an epiphany of sorts the last time I read Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, which it is obvious to me Austen knew well and that influenced her writing of P&P: there are a lot of scenes in it that are hilarious and well-written but do nothing to move the story forward. P&P has a lot of scenes that are hilarious and well-written but none that do not move the plot along. I wonder if Austen–having matured considerably in the waiting period between writing First Impressions and publishing Pride and Prejudice–took out some useless but fun scenes, which she had written in imitation of her writing hero? Any author writing today would be told by a good editor to get rid of such scenes, no matter how well-written.

      It’s all speculation, of course, but I still maintain that Austen learned from and improved upon Burney’s writing.

      As far as Gritty Realism™ goes, it seems to me that Jane just didn’t write about it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, but she was writing fiction, and she was entitled to create her fictional world as she saw fit.


      • Good point, Mags. Jane obviously loved to be clever, so she must have been tempted to “show off”. Maybe learned to stop and lop as she wrote (time provides lots of dispassionate perspective for critique).
        I wonder how JA study and enjoyment would be different if, 1) she had lived longer and written more, and, 2) her letters had survived. Fun to think about. Thanks again for the review of Longbourn.


  4. Barb Millett

    I was so looking forward to reading Longbourne, but having read two-thirds of it, I must say I dislike it so much that I have stopped reading and may never return to it. Thank-you Mags for articulating some of my thoughts about my problems with this novel. I agree that one feels beaten about the head with the gritty realism. The basic idea of writing a novel centered around the lives of servants and soldiers of this time period is of interest to me, but I wish the author hadn’t tied her story to Pride and Prejudice.


    • Yes–I would have liked it better if it were just set in that time period. As it was, I really struggled through it, and kept putting it down and picking it up. I only finished it because I really wanted to write a review. I was constantly pulled out of it by thinking, “No, that didn’t happen in P&P, it wasn’t like that, that character wasn’t like that.” If you’re gonna play in Jane’s sandbox, play by her rules.


Comments are closed.