Saturday, July 5, 2014

"Longbourn" by Jo Baker

If you love Pride and Prejudice, don't read this book.

Okay, that's a little harsh.  Maybe.  Let me just say that I was glad that this was not about Persuasion, because if it had been, I would have been pretty angry by the end.  I'm kind of angry at it anyway, and P&P only ties with Northanger Abbey as my second-favorite Austen book.  If it had been about Persuasion...

I'm not being coherent, am I?  I'm sorry.  I'll start over.

Longbourn is about the scenes behind the scenes of Pride and Prejudice.  You know how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead takes place on the edges of Hamlet, so we get to see what the titular characters are doing when they're not obsequiously scraping and bowing to Claudius and Gertrude or trying to weasel info out of Hamlet?  Longbourn is like that, only not funny and charming.  It focuses on the servants who work for the Bennets at Longbourn, particularly a young maid-of-all-work named Sarah.

Sarah is an orphan who was taken in by Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper at Longbourn, and who has grown into a young woman while working there.  The Bennets hire a new footman, James Smith, whom I liked very much indeed.  He was quiet, thoughtful, pensive even.  It's really not a spoiler at all to say that Sarah and James began to fall in love.  

And at first, I liked it so, so well!  The details of their daily lives, all the work that went into making the Bennets comfortable and happy -- I dug that a lot.  How laundry worked, what it took to prepare a meal -- it reminded me of how Austen herself took commonplace, seemingly boring aspects of life and showed how they could be important.  

But then the book took a darker turn.  After the first 150 pages or so, when I was well and truly hooked, when I cared so much about the characters I couldn't bear not to find out how it all ended, unpleasantness seeped in.  Secrets came to light that I didn't want to be there at all, hidden or not.  There was a section about one character's time in the army that was violent, disturbing, and involved some very bad language indeed.  

And the Bennets themselves are not portrayed favorably.  The author bio says that Pride and Prejudice is the author's favorite book, but I would not have guessed it, after reading this book.  She constantly describes them as dull, uncaring, and generally unpleasant.  Even Jane and Elizabeth are presented as oblivious, vacuous, or heedless.  And WHY do so many authors of P&P pastiches insist that once Elizabeth married Mr. Darcy and became mistress of Pemberley, she became frightened of her new position, didn't quite know how to manage servants, turned timid and uncertain?  What???  I've read three or four different what-happens-next P&P tales that do that, and I don't believe it for a minute.

Even Mr. Darcy, who I admit has faults and is not actually my favorite Austen hero, is not portrayed the way I would have wanted.  Sarah keeps thinking of him as "meaty" and is constantly overwhelmed by his presence and sheer size.  Rather weird, to be honest.  I can't see any Darcy fan being pleased.

So.  Clearly, I didn't like this book.  Which makes me sad and angry, because I could have liked it so very much.  I did like it at first.  I was prepared to love it.  I even recommended it to someone, a recommendation I now retract.  I tried to remember whose blog and what post I was commenting on when I said it was good, but I can't find it.  Whoever you were (I thought it was either Kara or Clarissa or Heidi P, but I can't remember now), please don't read this!  I un-recommend it!

But in all fairness, I do need to say that this was written well, although the author had a prediliction for exceedingly long sentences, and sometimes changed POV so quickly I got confused.  The pacing got a bit rocky at the end, getting sluggish and then speeding up too much for my taste.  But the characterizations were great, the details were amazing, and the word use was often surprising and fresh.

Particularly Good Bits:

Sarah, glancing up, hands stuffed into her armpits, her breath clouding the air, dreamed of the wild places beyond the horizon where it was already fully light, and of how, when her day was over, the sun would be shining on other places still, on the Barbadoes and Antigua and Jamaica where the dark men worked half-naked, and on the Americas where the Indians wore almost no clothes at all, and where there was consequently very little in the way of laundry, and how one day she would go there, and never have to wash other people's underthings again (p. 4).

Each day's work trickled over into the next, and nothing was ever finished, so you could never say, Look, that's it, the day's labour is over and done (p. 4).

The loss of his temper was an active thing; like shedding a heavy coat on a hot day, it was a relief to shrug it off (p. 209).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  R for bad language, adult dialog, semi-explicit sexual situations, and violence.  I wish I had not read it.

This is my eighth book read and reviewed for the I Love Library Books challenge.



    *ahem* Sorry, I, er, got kind of carried away there. I was so disappointed with 'Longbourn'. Okay so it's not entirely awful. It is technically well-written and the opening chapters are genuinely interesting. I loved learning more about Regency servant life. But by the end of the book I wished that I'd gone for a non-fiction book on the subject instead. Honestly if Baker hadn't claimed that P&P is her favourite book I would never have believed it. She seemed intent on trying to make the story as "dark" and "edgy" as possible. Not that there's anything wrong with dark and edgy stories but this book was inappropriate and completely against the spirit of Austen's novel. I mean for goodness' sake! Who wants to read about a paedophile in a P&P story?! And I'm so with you about the portrayals of the P&P characters. Urgh. Bad book. Very bad.

    1. Thank YOU! I'm glad I'm not the only person who found it awful, disturbing, and icky.

      Though once Baker pointed it out, I did realize that Wickham has a predilection for young girls. But the age of consent-to-marriage in Georgian England was 9 (yikes!), so going for the 15-year-olds was not that weird at the time. Also, he seemed genuinely attracted to Elizabeth, whereas his interest in Georgiana was only about her money and revenge, and in Lydia was purely opportunistic.

  2. I tried reading this book....a lady from church had given us a snippet of it that she had read in magazine, since she knew I loved P&P. The snippet was quite good, I thought, so I checked the book out from the library. Again, at first I thought it was interesting, but then it sort of started taking a turn I didn't like and I got rather disinterested. I ended up just skimming parts of the rest- and saw enough in there (mostly about my beloved P&P characters) that made me glad I hadn't read the whole thing. Thankfully I think I must have missed most of the "R" junk you mentioned, since I didn't really peruse it very well. Again, what a disappointment, especially because I had seen some really good reviews of it!

    1. You're not missing anything, and you saved yourself from wasting a whole big chunk of time.

      And yes, I'd read some really positive reviews, which is why I picked it up from the library. But so far, Mr. Darcy's Diary is the only P&P pastiche I've liked. The characters were all much as I wanted them to be.

  3. I've discussed this book thoroughly with others who have read it and I completely refuse to read it. I agree with what you said; the characters are portrayed in a completely different way than the original P&P. Good grief! If you want to do that, write a different story and don't link it to a beloved classic. I got the impression that she included some situations simply for shock value which, of course, equates with the number of copies sold. I have so little respect for this type of spin-off, even if the writing is good.

    1. I'm not sure I'd agree with the shock-value assessment, but I do think the author was kind of sneaky, sucking you in with 150 pages of being very nice, and then insidiously adding more and more unsavoryness.

      But yes, why on earth tie it to P&P? Only to get Janeites to read it and just have an assured audience. But an audience that, I hope, will mostly be disgusted and alienated, and what sense does that make?

      I won't read the racy Austen rewrites or follow-ups -- and there are a lot of those out there, I've discovered. This one gave me no indication it would be repugnant in any way. Pfui.


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