I’ve never read any Jane Austen-inspired fiction before, although I notice it all the time and wonder if there’s any chance I’d like it. Generally, the answer is probably not. But I’d heard enough people talking excitedly about Jo Baker’s Longbourn that it started to sound appealing. It turns out that the book is pretty good. There were some parts I didn’t like (an extended period that takes us to the Napoleonic wars in Europe) and sometimes I didn’t like the treatment of point of view. A few bumpy spots early on made me wonder whether I really wanted to be reading the book or not. But before too long I got fully caught up in the book and my doubts were gone.
The book, if you’re not familiar with it, is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective. One of the most interesting things about the novel is the different perspective we get on Austen’s plot and characters. We can see the events of P & P going on, but that action is very much in the background. The “upstairs” characters come and go, and we hear brief mentions of, for example, Jane’s stay at Netherfield or Mr. Collins’s visit and rejected marriage proposal, but the center of the action is downstairs, particularly around Sarah, one of the housemaids. She is a smart, thoughtful woman who enjoys reading when she can — Elizabeth lends her books — but whose body is slowly being worn down by the hard labor required of her. She watches after Polly, the young second housemaid, and observes with interest the new footman whom Mr. Bennett unexpectedly and rather mysteriously hires. In the meantime, it’s amusing to see that Elizabeth stands out not so much because of her wit and charm, but because her habit of tramping across the fields means the servants spend more time cleaning the mud off her boots and clothing. The worries and the priorities of this novel are different than Austen’s: it doesn’t matter so much that Mrs. Bennett is an embarrassment to her more well-bred older daughters or that Lydia’s misbehavior might keep Jane from a promising marriage prospect. What matters is that Mr. Collins, the future owner of Longbourn, find a wife who will keep the current set of servants so they won’t lose their jobs. Jane is the sister most admired among the five, not Elizabeth, because Jane is neat and mild-mannered and good at keeping the peace.
I think it’s possible to enjoy this novel without being familiar with Pride and Prejudice, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. The story is interesting in and of itself, but playing the two novels against each other as you read adds another, very satisfying, layer to the reading experience.