Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker


A brilliantly imagined, irresistible below-stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice: a story of the romance, intrigue and drama among the servants of the Bennet household, a triumphant tale of defying society's expectations, and an illuminating glimpse of working-class lives in Regency England.

The servants at Longbourn estate—only glancingly mentioned in Jane Austen's classic—take centre stage in Jo Baker's lively, cunning new novel. Here are the Bennets as we have never known them: seen through the eyes of those scrubbing the floors, cooking the meals, emptying the chamber pots. Our heroine is Sarah, an orphaned housemaid beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When the militia marches into town, a new footman arrives under mysterious circumstances, and Sarah finds herself the object of the attentions of an ambitious young former slave working at neighboring Netherfield Hall, the carefully choreographed world downstairs at Longbourn threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, up-ended. From the stern but soft-hearted housekeeper to the starry-eyed kitchen maid, these new characters come vividly to life in this already beloved world. Jo Baker shows us what Jane Austen wouldn't in a captivating, wonderfully evocative, moving work of fiction. 
Synopsis from Random House Canada

Random House Canada | October 8, 2013 | 352 pages

My Review

Longbourn, the latest novel from Jo Baker, is set in a time and place that will be familiar to many readers -- the early 19th century at Longbourn estate, the home of Jane Austen's fictional Bennet family from her beloved novel Pride and Prejudice.  While Austen's novel focuses on the Bennets themselves, they are only in the background in this novel.  The focus instead is on the few servants who worked and lived with the Bennets, particularly Sarah, the Bennet's maid, and William, the footman.

I'm a huge fan of both Pride and Prejudice and the time period in which it is set.  Because of this I picked up Longbourn fully expecting to love it every bit as much other readers seem to.  Unfortunately, I realized fairly quickly that this novel wasn't going to become a favourite.  While Baker does a formidable job conveying the often tedious daily routine of servants employed on smaller English estates, and is able to evoke a very strong sense of time and place,  I found too many parts of the story were bogged down by excessively descriptive prose.  As a result, no matter how eloquently written the narrative, I was often bored by it.  Fortunately, I thought the novel's conclusion was well done, as it moved quickly without feeling rushed, and this saved the book for me.

Baker does a good job of developing both Sarah and William's characters, although I thought William the more engaging of the two.  While this novel is ostensibly about the servants at Longbourn, Baker does provide readers a brief glimpse into the lives of the Bennets.  For the most part, I liked how Baker chose to portray each member of the Bennet family, and at no time did I feel Baker's interpretation of the characters to be inconsistent with how they were presented by Austen.  There was one aspect of the storyline involving one of the Bennets that I wasn't overly keen on, but it did work in the context of this novel.   

Even though Longbourn didn't work as well for me as I hoped, I still think it is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the time period as the novel's greatest strength is the strong sense of time and place it conveys. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Source: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

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