Longbourn

The blurb of Longbourn reads thus:

‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’

It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea…”

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Jo Baker, if you are ever to read this, then I am deeply sorry. I truly am.

I did not like your book.

Longbourn starts off in a really promising way. If you’ve ever seen the TV series Downton Abbey, then you know that tales from the servants perspective often start off slow but with a hint of tension, and Longbourn does just that. You are introduced to Sarah, the main protagonist, as she prepares for Wash-day, one of the most straining times for the servants of the household. We read as Sarah and Polly, a much younger maid, hang out the laundry to dry in the Paddock. Sarah thinks she sees a man, and instantly our interest peaks.

That’s fine. That’s great. That’s the way it’s done, Baker has inserted a mystery. Who was the man? What does he want? Is it significant that Sarah is the only one that saw him? Was there anyone actually there at all?

But, for all it’s worth, I had already lost all respect for this book and we’re only really on page sixteen.

I disliked the novel from the outset, and I’ll tell you why. It may have been an editing issue and absolutely nothing to do with Jo Baker herself, but the blurb misquoted the book itself. The above quote from the blurb is there for you to see, but then when the actual passage that it is taken from appears, it has a number of minor differences. The actual passage reads:

“If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”

How does such a difference happen?!

Sloppy editing ruined this novel for me from the start, but I’m afraid the plot nor the writing style saved it.

Obviously when reading a book based on an older novel, there are some aspects of the two that you will assume to be similar. I’m afraid that, in the case of Longbourn, very little of the original Pride and Prejudice story or feel remained. The very (and I mean very) basic plot ran in the background. Bingley and Darcy come to Hertfordshire. The house is all of a dither. The militia arrive in Meryton. Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth, allowing her to reject him. Lydia elopes with Mr Wickham. The search for them is frantic.

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However, I had assumed that there would be much more emphasis on the original story, while in reality the goings on of the Bennets’ was only mentioned every once in a while. Not only this but, I am sad to say, Jo Baker took some overly large liberties in altering the original story in order to make her novel more exciting.

True Jane Austen fans who do not want the original characters to be sullied or altered in their minds, I really suggest that you stop reading here. As a lover of Pride and Prejudice, I was appalled by some of the ways in which Jo Baker added to the personalities and backgrounds of the characters.

And if you want to avoid spoilers, I’m afraid that you should also look away now, because there is no getting away from them.

Ok, deep breaths, here goes.

Jo Baker elaborates on the personal lives of many of the characters, which I wasn’t altogether fond of to begin with, but then she really took the biscuit.

You see, the man that Sarah spots at the beginning of the book is one James Smith, who is hired by Mr Bennet as a footman for the house. James has a mysterious past which is thrust upon the reader like a child at school saying “Ohh I know a secret! But I can’t tell you what it is.” – It is obvious from the get go that his past will be a dramatic one, but I’m afraid that Baker’s writing did nothing to make this exciting or even that mysterious.

It is also obvious from the start that Sarah and James will provide a romantic thread throughout the book, but of course there has to be an obstacle to put in between the young lovers, and this takes the form of Mr Wickham, who is all too aware of James’ mysterious past life. James flees. Sarah is heartbroken. At this point in the novel I was so detached from the characters that I felt myself thinking, in a very sarcastic tone I might add, “Oh no, what a shame. The horror. Oh however will they end up together now.”

As James’ secret life comes under scrutiny, his past is revealed to the readers. He is a deserter from the army. At the time this was punishable by death, so it explained why he ran away once Mr Wickham had figured out who he was.

Now, James’ past was probably the only thing that gripped me about this slow, agonising read. I had to know where he came from, what he did, why he abandoned the militia and ultimately, how he came to be at Longbourn. But no, that didn’t live up to it’s potential either.

As it turns out, James is the secret love-child of Mrs Hill, the housekeeper, and Mr Bennet, long before he married Mrs Bennet. Given to a nearby farmer and his wife, James grew up impoverished, unloved and very rebellious. He flees home to join the army and gets lost from his troops. He is declared a deserter and sentenced to death, but manages to escape. He eventually finds his way to England where he has fond memories of Mr Bennet, who would occassionaly come by the farm and inquire after his health. Because of this he confides in the kindly old man and asks his assistance, ignorant to the fact that he is actually confiding in his biological father.

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“But this is incredibly exciting!” I hear you cry and yes, yes it is. If this was an original novel there is a chance that this revelation would have saved the storyline. But it isn’t an original novel, it is based on a classic. And, if there is one thing that I’ve learnt from working in a bookshop, it is that you can’t go around adding in dramatic background stories to classic novels without receiving a bit of hate, and rightly so.

I’m sorry Jo, you just can’t give Mr Bennet an illegitimate child with his house keeper, changing our opinion on his good manner altogether, without making sure that it is written seamlessly and in keeping with Jane Austen’s style. If the Bennet/Hill affair was in line with Austen’s beautifully detailed and witty prose, then I may have forgiven you for tarnishing the character of Mr B, but it wasn’t in the same league at all.

And, to add insult to injury, Baker also brought the idyllic relationship between Mr Darcy and Miss Elizabeth, which every girl dreams of managing to experience one day, crashing down.

You see, Longbourn continues on after Miss Elizabeth is married and becomes Mrs Darcy and, luckily for Sarah, Elizabeth is in need of a maid to bring to Pemberly when she moves there. All well and good, yes, but NO! Not when Baker has Elizabeth telling Sarah about all of her doubts. She has fears about her marriage, worries about how well suited the two of them are, about how happy she may really be at Pemberly. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how in one fell swoop Baker ruined Pride and Prejudice for me for good. I cannot read it now without wondering “But was Elizabeth truly happy with Darcy?”, whereas before reading Longbourn I would have devoured the original, blissfully content in finding a book that was both intelligent and ever so romantic.

Austen’s writing is richly detailed, atmospheric and has long, beautiful descriptions of individual characteristics of both people and places alike. In some scenes Pride and Prejudice is slow and hard-going, while in other parts, where the drama builds, it is fast paced, gripping and very, very cleverly written. The plot is so intricate that you have to concentrate all the way through and, if you do so, you will pick up on the tiniest details in Austen’s writing which demonstrates her true skill and intelligence.

Jo Baker wrote a quick read Romance novel, and I’m afraid that’s all. It had none of the charm, atmosphere or intelligence of the original. It was not witty, but instead filled with one-liners and sarcastic comments from characters which were clearly meant to provide comedy, but just seemed too try-hard to genuinely be entertaining.

I really tried to like this novel, I really, truly did. I just couldn’t.

I came so close to giving up on it on a number of occasions, and to me that really says it all. If you want a quick, escapist romance with a predictable ending, try Longbourn.

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