Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Book #1 Longbourne by Jo Baker


There are many books that have riffed off Pride and Prejudice and many terrible unauthorized sequels like PD James 'Death Comes To Pemberley', because of this I was somewhat wary of Longbourne and came to it quite late.

What makes it different, and the reason I gave it a chance is that it offers something that feels like a fresh take by retelling the story from the perspective of the Bennett families lowly servants on their small estate.

I enjoyed this book but I also found it quite hit and miss. Some of it is very well observed. Would Elizabeth Bennett for example have traipsed about the countryside getting her petticoats three inches deep in mud if she'd had the washing of them? Ditto other household chores of the age like making soap from scratch and having to boil and reuse menstrual napkins.

By sheer coincidence, prior to reading this book I'd had a long conversation on Twitter about the uncertain nature of Mr Bingley's background. Just why was a young man of breeding and fortune on the hunt for a Rent-A-Mansion? Why didn't he have a family seat?

This book posits that the Bingley's made their money from the slave trade and were plantation owners which suddenly casts the affable cheery Mr Bingley in a new unpleasant light. But this got me to thinking that with all of our landed gentry Austen heroes a good source of their wealth must have come from exploitation of those 'beneath them' be it slavery, or through owning mills or collieries or via the feudal system.

It does take a wider perspective of life at the time and that it wasn't all drawing rooms and balls for everyone.

Sarah, a maid and one of the main characters, who begins to fall for the new footman James is likeable as a protagonist, and the much harried Hill, likeable too, and there were a lot of nuances about the James back story that I liked in terms of the way they impacted the original novel.  I liked how each chapter was prefaced with a sentence from a Pride and Prejudice indicating which part of the novel Sarah's story was running concurrently to. I also loved how the below stairs staff were completely on to Mr Wickham from the start.

It does have a tendency to drift though, and the section featuring James's experiences in the army was unnecessary. For reasons I can't be clear on without spoilers the denouement is quite silly and would have worked much better had the roles been reversed.

It's a good book, if not a great one.


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