Retelling Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the people who dislike this book because they don’t like the way Elizabeth or other Bennets act in it really need to venture out of their protective bubble.

There’s a reason the characters in Longbourn are mentioned only in passing in Pride and Prejudice: it’s because the upper classes barely noticed that the servant class existed. The portrayal of the Bennets in this book seems perfectly in line with their portrayal in the book; they are kind to the servants, they are not monsters, but they have a sense of entitlement — which is barely noticed when the story is told from their perspective, but which rankles a bit when you see it through the eyes of those who must work to make sure the Bennets continue to receive what they feel entitled to, whether it is new shoe roses despite the rain or three warm meals each day.

Although I consider myself a Jane Austen fan and I like the romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, I get easily irritated by the Jane-ites that fawn over the romance in the books as though Austen was merely a writer of Harlequins and not a woman who was attempting to critique the society in which she lived even as she upheld it. And I have limited patience for books such as Austenland and The Jane Austen Book Club that seem fixated on “cute-sy-fying” Austen.

What I loved about Longbourn is that it brought Regency England back down to earth. There are cold mornings, chamber pots to be emptied, a war in Spain, wealth that is acquired through connections with the slave trade. This should not “tarnish” our view of the original works but instead deepen it with a more complete appreciation of their full context. This book is rich in sensory and historical details and delves fully into the lives of those who are often considered disposable and forgettable by history — and yes, by Austen herself, whether you like it or not.

Although it does have some similar themes to P&P, it is not too obvious, nor does it cripple itself by trying too hard to emulate the source material. At the same time, this book is eminently faithful to the original — all the events are the same — and only the perspectives are different. This time, the Bennets are in the background, and while this might be disappointing to those hoping to slather over a new take on Elizabeth and Darcy’s love, I found it to be perfectly acceptable because the main characters here are fully realized enough that we don’t need to rely on an old, beloved story to make it through. I also appreciated that, because this book was written much later than P&P, it could more fully explore issues that would have been improper to write about then, such as just how creepy Wickham might have been, what happened when children were born out of wedlock, etc.

It was a little slow to start, and I found my interest waning in the section about James near the end, which took the action away from the core group of women we had been following for the rest of the book. But it is definitely a worthwhile read, especially if you enjoy well-rendered, intimate historical fiction, and whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to its source material.

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2 Responses to “Retelling Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker”

  1. C. K.

    I haven’t read Austenland or any of the like but I absolutely adored this and think you don’t especially need to be an Austen fan to heartily enjoy Longbourne. One of my faves from recent years.

    Reply
    • Lacey

      I agree — I don’t think you need to be an Austen or P&P fan to enjoy this. I think anyone who appreciates a good historical fiction would like it, and the good writing doesn’t hurt things, either.

      Reply

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