by Jo Baker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Longbourne / 978-0345806970
I've never been a huge fan of Pride & Prejudice, though I freely acknowledge Jane Austen's skill as a writer. But I've always been more interested in the lives of the serving girls than the lives of the women upstairs, with their balls and shoe-roses. (Seriously, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is one of my favorite novels specifically *because* of all the servanty bits.) So as soon as I heard of Longbourne on Sarah Wendell's review site (Smart B------, Trashy Books), I knew I would love it.
I sped through this book over the course of three days and bitterly resented every moment that I had to put it down! As other reviewers have mentioned, this book is more "around" Price & Prejudice than "about" it, and the format of the one novel serves as a perfect backdrop for the material in this one. Jo Baker's writing is superb and evocative, and fits well with the language I expect in a Regency without being turgid to slog through. Baker has wholly embraced the servant framing, and we receive all the world-building of that sort which you could possibly hope for, and she perfectly interweaves characterization through the daily grind of chores.
What I like most about this novel is how it focuses so well and so thoroughly on its entire cast of characters. Whereas this might be confusing or jarring in another novel, the multiple characters work well here and we care deeply about exploring the romantic relationship between Sarah and the men in her life, and the surrogate familial relationship between the servants in the household as they quarrel and love and comfort and scold and shelter each other. The result is realistic without being too harsh, touching without being saccharine.
I struggle with recommending this book without giving too much of the plot away, but I will touch briefly on the issue of Mr. Bennet. I will say that I have never much cared for Mr. Bennet--yes, he is the comic relief and gets the best lines, but he is also harsh to his family members and careless of his daughter's futures. Longbourne explores this side of his character further, pointing out (for example) how callous it is for him to receive Mr. Collins for a stay without alerting the household staff. The staff not only have to prepare at short notice for a guest, they also need to impress Mr. Collins deeply so that he will not dismiss them when he inherits the house. I thought this handling of the character of Mr. Bennet was realistic towards what was displayed in the original P&P novel; here he is not overtly villainized, but his casual self-indulgence does provide some of the conflict for the servants to overcome.
If I can find fault with this book, it is that at the 3/4 point there is an extended flash-back which is well-written but could not hold my interest as I was too anxious to find out what would happen in the future to take time out to hear about the past. This is important to the characterization in the novel, though, and I don't feel right complaining that the book hooked me so deeply that I couldn't wait to turn each page!
A couple more things I want to mention that gave me great pleasure: One, this is the first Regency book I've read which has a black man as both a major character *and* as a viable party in a love triangle. I felt like this was handled fairly well, and he is treated in the story with respect from most parties and like it would be no big deal for Sarah (who is white) to marry him. Even the characters who react to him in (relatively mild) racist ways do acknowledge that he's the handsomest man in town and certain to turn the girls' heads. I loved that.
Two, this is also the first Regency book I've read which has a gay man in it. And even better, the book strives to not treat him like a rare unicorn: one line which particularly pleased me was "The farmhands—at least, those of them that tended towards the liking of women—stopped and stared, mouths hanging open, as she went by in Mary’s pretty cast-offs." Of course, I haven't read a ton of Regency books, but it seems (in my experience) that a lot of authors tend towards entirely white casts and heteronormativity; I appreciated that Jo Baker didn't do that for her novel.
Probably the best compliment I can give Longbourne, though, is that it made me want to read Pride & Prejudice again (something I'd decided I'd had enough of for a lifetime) just so that I can relive the lives of Sarah and Mrs. Hill and James and Polly and Mr. Hill all over again in my imagination. I strongly recommend this book and consider it the best fiction I read in all of 2013. (And I most seriously hope that Jo Baker decides to tackle Sense & Sensibility next, if she sticks with Jane Austen as an inspiration.)
~ Ana Mardoll