Disclaimer: this is not a review in the traditional sense. I am just trying to help readers decide if this is a book for them. I make comparisons between the featured book and my book, Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, because if you are visiting this blog, you probably at least know about that book, and may have read it. Also, I am shamelessly plugging my own work. Please forgive an indie author her flagrant self-promotion.
I recently read Longbourn, by Jo Baker, which was a book I was very excited to learn about and really looked forward to enjoying. I particularly loved the cover design.
If you don't know already, this is a book about the servants at Longbourn, during Pride and Prejudice.
The most important thing to know before reading this book is that it does not read at all like a Jane Austen novel. It is not supposed to. This is the author's own story, told very much in her own voice. It is a very different kind of book from Follies Past. It does not use period language. It does not follow Austen's rules. The point of the book is to reveal the gritty underbelly of Regency life, the dark and smelly things that were every day life for most people, and that Jane Austen chose not to write about. There are menstrual rags and hogshit and piss and violent, horrible war. There is also a love story, and the English countryside.
The lead character (the housemaid) exhibits, among other feelings, some moderated resentment towards the Bennett girls. On the first page of the book, she reflects on how the ladies present themselves as sealed, ivory beings, but she carries out their chamber pots. She washes their armpits. She knows they are just as human and as messy as she is.
Reading this book is a post-modern exercise. It is not like watching Downton Abbey - which I sort of thought it would be - because you don't get both stories at once. The upstairs story has already been told. This is just the downstairs story. I think this is an important thing to bear in mind before reading this book.
The book does not mess with the original. When we do encounter Austen's characters on the page, they are quite in keeping with her descriptions, except perhaps Wickham, who is a bit creepy. I know he is a creep, but in Pride and Prejudice, everyone is taken in by his impeccable appearance of goodness. Elizabeth cannot imagine him to be the blackguard he is because it so strongly contradicts all her Spidey senses. In Longbourn, we only see Wickham interacting with the staff, however, and not with the company, and we all know him to be two-faced, so this is not necessarily a contradiction. Longbourn is certainly accurate and you will not encounter anything that runs afoul of your expectations based on the original novel.
I must note one caveat to that, which I cannot explain without a serious spoiler. Let me just say that one principle character has a secret, and it is not one that Jane Austen so much as hinted at. It is rather scandalous, but not at all impossible. I will not tell you who has this secret, only that it is not Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane or Bingley. If you have read Follies Past, I can tell you that it is sort of like the history I invented for Caroline. It does not contradict anything in the original but it is certainly not contemplated by it.
The research in this book is immense; it is absolutely dripping with period detail. The prose is quite poetic in style - lots of imagery and metaphor and the like. I didn't notice any proofreading issues, and I am quite picky.
Those are the things I think are helpful to know about this book. I hope this assists you in deciding whether to read it. There are certainly plenty of reviews of this book to tell you whether the story is good or not, and whether other people enjoyed it. And feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.
Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice
Read Chapter 1 Watch the Trailers Order Paperback Download eBook
If you would like to submit your Austen-inspired novel for a non-review like this, please visit the Non-Review Submissions page.