My rating: 2 of 5 stars
To be honest, I rarely read any Jane Austen books that aren’t written by Jane Austen. I just find it so hard not to be disappointed when a modern author tries to adopt Jane’s characters and doesn’t get it right and to be fair, the original books are so amazing that it is hard to match them. Still, I had heard so many great things about Jo Baker’s Longbourn that I thought I would give it a chance. The premise of the story is that it is from the point of view of the background characters from Pride and Prejudice, the servants who tend to Elizabeth Bennet and the rest of the Bennet family at their home, Longbourn. I thought that if the Bennets were not the focus of the story, Longbourn had a chance to avoid most of the pitfalls that Jane Austen lit books typically fall into. I wish I could say that it lived up to the hype and that it convinced me that it is possible for others to play in Jane Austen’s world and do it well but even if you didn’t hold it to the standards of a Jane Austen novel, Longbourn has some serious flaws.
From the point of view of a Jane Austen fan, which I have to assume was the target audience for this book, there is a strange hostility towards the Bennet family – both in terms of how the other characters view them and in the way they were portrayed by the author – that was a bit uncomfortable to read. In this, Longbourn reminded me of March by Geraldine Brooks, an odious re-telling of Little Women from Mr. March’s point of view, that came across to me, a devoted Little Women fan, as not so much a retelling but a deliberate and bitter smear campaign against beloved literary characters by an author with an agenda. Longbourn wasn’t quite as bad but it did seem that the more popular a character is to Jane Austen’s readers and the more sympathetically that Jane Austen portrayed them, the more the author seemed to dislike them and depict them in the most unflattering manner possible. Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet take the brunt of this, while characters like Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, Mary, and Lydia are treated much more positively and sympathetically. (Lady Catherine de Bourgh, however, is thoroughly insufferable, no matter which version of the story you read).
About halfway through, I decided to read the rest of the book as if the Bennet family weren’t Jane Austen’s Bennets. I thought that if I divorced the story from Pride and Prejudice, it might be more readable but the truth was that the writing was uneven and poorly thought out even when I wasn’t comparing it to Jane Austen’s. I am not saying that there weren’t good moments. The part of the book where Mr. Collins visits and the servants, concerned that he be impressed with them so he would keep them on when he became the master of Longbourn, was interesting. But these good parts were few and far between and get drowned out by the more implausible or ill-conceived plot points.
And the main character was so unlikable that it was hard to wade through her muttering and complaining to get to the better parts of the book. I understand that there was a divide in privilege and advantages between the servants and the family but Sarah’s sullenness and resentment got to be a bit much at times and her attitudes towards the other characters seemed to veer in dramatic mood swings that almost seemed to come and go without rhyme or reason.
I am not sure what other readers who have reviewed this book so glowingly are seeing that I am missing but it is a truth most fervently (if not universally) acknowledged that you really should leave Jane Austen and her creations alone if you cannot do them justice and Longbourn sadly did not.