Longbourn is a serious, literary book—which is more than can be said for many Jane Austen spinoffs by modern-day writers. In the manner of Upstairs, Downstairs, it focuses on the downstairs—the servants of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet family, especially the maidservant Sarah. It is gritty and graphic almost to excess; readers learn about all the drudgery and nasty chores needed to keep an early 19th-century English gentleman's household running, down to dumping out the chamber pots.
Instead of having the staff—the housekeeper Mrs. Hill and her husband the butler; Sarah and the other housemaid, Polly; and the footman, James—react to the familiar events of Pride and Prejudice, author Jo Baker invents original stories for them. The main plot, involving Sarah and James, reflects Elizabeth’s own initial distrust of Darcy. Sarah suspects that James, who appears on the scene at the start of the book, is hiding something. And just like Elizabeth toward Darcy, when Sarah finds out the truth, she comes to have very different feelings for James.
Longbourn may not be Austen fans’ best choice in a spinoff novel. For all that the Bennets matter to the plot, the servants could have worked in another home of the time. And the tone of Longbourn is far from Austen’s lightness and brightness. These observations don’t make Loughbourn a bad book—it is well written and serious of purpose—but it’s not really in the mode of Jane Austen.
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