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.