Today I thought I would share a review of my most recent read: Longbourne by Jo Baker, This book first entered my literary radar via a review on A Beautiful Mess blog. I had seen the cover displayed at our local bookstore Curious Iguana, but I never felt drawn to pick up the book. As a general rule, I don't read spin-off stories. The paperback industry of Pride & Prejudice spinoff novels is just too in-your-face lucrative. You know what I'm talking about... those novels with a scantily clad Mr. Darcy on the cover. With one glance, I consigned Baker's novel to this category.
I couldn't have been more wrong. Instead, Baker's novel Longbourne proved to be a page-turner that not only kept my interest but changed my entire interpretations of the Bennett-Darcy world.
Warning: if you haven't read the book, there be spoilers ahead.
1. Baker gives her readers a completely different view of Regency England. You're not led into the dainty parlors or escorted around the ballrooms. Instead, Baker plops you in the kitchen, the barnyard, or even out back at "the necessary." The famous Pride and Prejudice characters fade to the background while Baker's protagonists--the servants-- take the stage. Everyday aspects of life that Austen's contemporary readers probably already knew -- like how the washing was done or how the courses were served--are brought to light. Yet somehow, Baker manages to delve intrusively into the Bennett household without sullying the original story. Sure, you learn things like how annoying it was for the servants to clean the Bennett girls' "monthly napkins" and how frustrating Elizabeth's muddy jaunts across the English countryside were to the servant cleaning her clothes and boots. But these revelations don't lower Austen's characters. Instead, these details render the Bennetts more human somehow, more believable.
2. The protagonist Sarah is just as gutsy and memorable as Elizabeth Bennett, maybe more so. And I love her. Because Elizabeth Bennett has been such a beloved character of English literature for nearly two centuries, I was a little worried about Baker's ability to create a character who could stand out despite the long literary shadow cast by Austen. Yet Sarah certainly stands as her own person. She is headstrong, brave, and opinionated-- and isn't afraid to stand up for herself or fight for what she truly wants. I especially appreciated that she didn't wait to be rescued by the dashing gentleman. Instead, she went out and found him and rescued him.
3. All that being said... I do somewhat feel like Baker was a bit harsh in her portrayal of Darcy and Elizabeth's marriage. The final chapters of Longbourne extend beyond the tale of Pride and Prejudice and give you a glimpse into life at Pemberly after the Darcy wedding. This life, as portrayed by Baker, seemed a bit of a letdown. A demure wife, Elizabeth seems to lose her spark and individuality, becoming instead this polished, sophisticated lady. Suddenly, it seems Elizabeth is so concerned with the "Darcy name" that she cowers at others' opinions of her. Next thing you know, she's pregnant with one of what Sarah assumes will be many children, since "that is what a man like Darcy needs." Reading this, I thought sheesh. I couldn't help but wonder if the modern-woman Baker was looking back on the marriages of that time period with a bit too critical of an eye. As if her message was "Ya'll, Pride and Prejudice is just a fairytale. There was no prince. Here's the reality." Of course, women did face a harsh fate of childbearing over and over again back then. But was the change in Elizabeth true to her wild, willful character? I feel like maybe not. However, Sarah's storyline is so interesting that you quickly forget about Pemberly.
All in all, I highly recommend this novel! If you're looking for a good beach-read, this may be it.
Have you read the story? If so, what are your thoughts?