Longbourn was another ALA exhibit floor find. Found in a lovely stack and not my usual fare, I picked it up because of the simple cover and lovely font. I read the words “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them,” on the back of the cover and immediately knew that this was a book worth bringing home. It’s time for a book confession: I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice. I’ve actually never read a Jane Austen book, despite the fact that I know I will love them. I started to listen to Sense and Sensibility, but haven’t finished it yet. I once went to a Jane Austen tea, which was delightful, but that is as close as I have come. I have, however, read a few different interpretations of Austen books. This was one of the best.
Longbourn, unlike other interpretations, takes place in the same time, same place, and with the exact same characters. There is no re-imagining. Instead, it is a shift in focus, to the Bennets’ servants. Told mainly from the perspective of Sarah, a young maid who came to the house orphaned. She is cared for by Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the elderly couple who has worked for the Bennets for many years. Penny is younger than Sarah, with her head often in the clouds instead of on her work. Though Sarah has to work harder to cover for Penny, she is also protective of the girl, with a genuine sisterly affection. When James Smith shows up on the doorstep and is hired as a footman by Mr. Bennet (without the knowledge of Mrs. Hill), the servants household will never be the same.
The familiar characters, the Bennets, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, his sisters, and the soldiers, all make appearances. This time, however, we see them as the servants see them. Now, they seem to be sillier, shallower, and more ignorant of the world. In truth, that is often how a group of girls may appear to outsiders who have seen how harsh the world can be. Not to say the servants view the household only in a negative light. The girls can also be kind, genuinely heartbroken, and fiercely loyal.
James provides a mystery in this story, as no one knows where he came from and he refuses to talk of his past or make any meaningful connections with the family. It is obvious that he is attracted to Sarah, and yet he won’t let himself show it. He wants no attachments. I gradually guessed at one part of his past, but the rest was completely unexpected. Around 2/3 of the way through, I was unsure where the book was going, how it would come to a satisfying (which is not to say happy) conclusion, but Jo Baker got there. I can’t imagine how the book could have ended better. It was a wholly enjoyable book, and reinforced the fact that I should indeed read Jane Austen’s original.
Jo Baker introduces us to Longbourn:
Author: Jo Baker
Age level: Adult
Who I handed this book to first: My mother-in-law, who has read Jane Austen.
Setting: England, early 1800s.
Favorite Character: James Smith. He is smart, mysterious, loyal, and protective. He also loves the horses he cares for, and who doesn’t love a man who loves a horse?
Favorite Moment: Towards the end, when Sarah finally makes a choice and follows it through.
Rating: 3 stars. This was a great book, highly recommended.
Book Source: Received an ARC from the publisher.