There are easily more spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice than any other of Jane Austen’s novels. I despise the majority of these novels, so it was with carefully-guarded skepticism that I read all the raves about Jo Baker’s Longbourn. One critic at BookRiot hailed it as the “best new addition to the Austenverse”, and even Kirkus listed it as one of the best books of 2013. But somewhere in the midst of all the hype, I decided I had to lay aside my own prejudice against the greater canon of Austen spin-offs and give this book an honest try.
Longbourn is the story of the Bennet family’s servants. In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Ms. Baker says: “When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn. When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen’s novel, they leave the carriage waiting in this one.”
This note probably would have gone over with me better if she’d couched her statements in the realm of imagination (“…imagine it has been prepared in Longbourn…”); as it was, it felt a bit presumptuous to me, so it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t see it until after reading the whole book. I tend to take issue on principle with anyone who tries to give life to the story “beyond the text”, which is my primary complaint about Austen spin-offs generally. But this sticking point, ironically, is ultimately why I forgave Ms. Baker and ended up enjoying Longbourn: the principal characters in Austen’s novel are mere sketches of supporting characters in Baker’s (the sole exception being Wickham, but I don’t like Wickham, so I don’t mind if she paints him in slightly greater detail as the lech that most readers already know him to be). I may not choose to think of her novel as being the Truth about the servants in Pride and Prejudice, but it’s an entertaining story, nonetheless.
Like Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is a love story. It’s the story primarily of Sarah, the principal housemaid, and the Bennet’s mysterious new footman, James. It’s also the story of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and cook. Ms. Baker certainly did her research into the times; this novel is very much about below-stairs life — the cleansing of literally dirty laundry and the stink of smells and the servants’ chilblained hands.
My other primary complaint about most Austen spin-off books is that they sound desperately unintelligent to me: either they try to mimic Austen’s prose style and can’t carry it off successfully, or they use modern language without modernizing the setting and characters and it just doesn’t work. They’re all too often poorly-written, in other words. So I’m fully aware of the irony in announcing that my biggest complaint about Ms. Baker’s novel is that I frequently felt she was hitting me over the head with her PhD*.
For example, very early in the novel (page 21 of my copy), Sarah’s chilblained hands are washing the breakfast dishes and we learn that she “watched the glair whiten and lift.” If you, like me, had no idea what “glair” was, please allow me to enlighten you: it refers to the white of an egg or a concoction made therefrom. This may have been the first word I had to look up, but it was certainly not the last (cf. stour, gallinies, scrofulous, frowsty).
Normally I like having my vocabulary stretched by a novel; perhaps it was just the overall tone that in conjunction with the vocabulary seemed pretentious. Or the fact that the same author who used the word “clayey” (really!) also used the word “medicaments”. Or, and I realize this is the rabid Austenite coming out in me, using “calash”, an alternative spelling of caléche, when I would guess most of us are more familiar with the French spelling from Austen’s novels, or even “barouche” (a similar, if not identical, vehicle also already familiar from Austen’s novels). (I do realize it might have been an editorial rather than an authorial decision to use the Anglicized form of the word.)
But truthfully, my complaints about the book are small. Jo Baker did none of the things I despise: she didn’t try to reimagine Darcy and Elizabeth or re-tell their story, putting her own spin on it, and she didn’t try to imitate Jane Austen’s voice. No, Longbourn tells its own story. I think it was better when it was telling that story than when it was dwelling on the sights or smells in a scene — and it was rather more George Eliot in tone than Jane Austen, but I enjoyed it.
* After reading page 21, if anyone was to ask me how the book was they would have heard: “I feel like the author is hitting me over the head with her MFA!!!” Then I looked the author up online and discovered she actually has a PhD.