October brings us an interesting effort to capitalize on the magic of both Jane Austen and Downton Abbey. Author Jo Baker turns Pride and Prejudice on its head, offering a glimpse into the servants’ lives at the Bennet household.
Before you roll your eyes, pause and hear me out. I am not a fan of Austen reinventions. I am, however, a Downton Abbey watcher (thanks to James), although in my humble opinion the show jumped the shark after the first season or so. I also have this habit of sighing when offered a novel that so clearly has been written with the intention of catering to the market. When I worked as an editor, I can’t tell you how many times I reviewed book proposals billed as “Jurassic Park meets The Da Vinci Code" or "Romeo and Juliet retold as a western” or some other premise clearly riding the coattails of an earlier success. I understand how necessary it is for authors to appeal to a mass audience nowadays, but I always worry that a gimmick is just a pig with lipstick. Give me great writing and an original story any day over a book that’s trying too hard. So when I see a new novel billed as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, I’m skeptical. The good news is, Longbourn is what it claims to be, and refreshingly so.
Longbourn is a slow burn (no pun intended), growing in power the further you read. I didn’t want to like it necessarily, but when I felt myself getting sucked in too much to put it down, I conceded that Baker has done something right. The smartest thing she did is avoid an attempt at Austen’s voice, and Longbourn succeeds as a completely different type of novel than Pride and Prejudice. Sarah, the young maid, is our heroine and she is easy to like; her ambitions are small and her life of crippling housework and drudgery makes her a character to both pity and admire. She doesn’t possess the sparkling wit of Elizabeth Bennet; instead Sarah is humble and introspective. Her steadiness gives Longourn a refreshing heart and soul. It makes sense that the servants wouldn’t be as lighthearted as the masters, because there life simply isn’t as carefree.
The Bennets’ staff is small, led by an older married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and their two orphan housemaids, Sarah and Polly. A mysterious man named James joins the staff at the beginning of the book, getting off on the wrong foot with Sarah and putting a series of events in motion. The Pride and Prejudice plot is the backdrop for what happens in the servants’ lives, but don’t expect the Bennets’ storyline to sparkle the way it does in the original. Here the interchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy are entirely missing, so the only juicy back story Longbourn offers surround Wickham and Mr. Bennet. I won’t give those twists away. Mr. Collins is also portrayed in a much more sympathetic light. Essentially the plot revolves around Sarah, her flirtation with a black footman who works for the Bingleys, and what happens between her and James. Steeped in the grittiness of a servant’s life, the outcome resonates in a way that the upstairs characters’ fates never could.
On a broader scale, Baker’s vision is a historical novel as much as a romance, examining a life of endless servitude in the English countryside. If readers can look past the Pride and Prejudice connection and see Longbourn as a standalone, I suspect the book will be more appreciated. For those that love the Bennets, the way the servants focus on the flaws of the upstairs characters could inspire some defensiveness. But when we read Pride and Prejudice, did we ever stop to think of the consequences of Elizabeth dirtying her petticoats? The servants are the ones who pay the price. If you’re able to distance yourself from the Elizabeth in the original, gaining Sarah’s perspective is rewarding and eye-opening.
There is one plot twist at the end of Longbourn that feels like a stretch. It involves a major character from P&P and casts a whole new light on the original story. I’ll be curious to hear how others digested it.