Longbourn by Jo Baker
|Longbourn by Jo Baker
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: John Lloyd
|Summary: This is a simply brilliant visit into the world of Jane Austen, which supersedes the classic with its own power.
|Date: August 2013
So we have had Jane Austen meet zombies, and now something perhaps even more reprehensible – social realism. This is a world where people slip up in hogshit, where rain pisses it down, and if the weekly routine washday is bad, you should try it when five Bennet daughters have their coinciding periods. Sarah is in the middle of all this, trying to do her share of the housework with one hand at times, lest pus from her blisters get on the linen, or her callouses crack open. But why can she not get her feelings about James, the new mysterious footman fresh from who-knows-where, straight in her head, and why is her heart turned by the mulatto servant of the Bingleys up at Netherfield?
It's important first of all to consider what this book is not. It never tries to pan for the Upstairs Downton class divide gold; and it never feels like a corrective to Austen. It doesn't force the fact that it references the same plot but from a different point of view down your throat. It states its intentions quite evidently – The [Bennet] family's concerns, though they were flapped and fussed over and made the most of, seemed far away and tiny now; they did not signify. Instead background is foreground, for instead it gives us a different yet fully rounded family of sorts below stairs – Sarah is above the foundling Polly but a long way below Mr and Mrs Hill, who are of course a long way below the Bennets, to whom nothing signifies anything beyond the routine of balls, dress-making and proposals we know from the original book.
Nor does this have any of the turgidity of the Austen. Yes, it has a rich vocabulary, sometimes being too archaic for even my Scrabble List Dictionary, but it reads crisp and fresh on the page, while at the same time not thrusting too modern a sensitivity on things. For those coming to it seeking a traditional romance, there is definitely the caught-between-two-men troubles of Sarah, while those coming at it expecting a post-modern, very artfully literary rewrite, will possibly not find what they want, for the quotes and allusions are there but are easily skimmed over – they're water way under your feet, when Baker is providing a duckboard to keep you dry and moving firmly forwards on a path of her own. You certainly realise this when seeing just how little Austen's most famous male character is present.
Nor is this, however, sacrilegious for those who adore the original. I'll do the sacrilege, thanks – I hate, loathe and detest the book I've yet to name here, and will not. This text in hand has many snatches that are definitely quotable, but nowhere is there the archness of that opening line, the insufferably inclusive, over-seeing narrative voice. Instead you get a firmly different, immeasurably better story, that opens into a world of its own. And it's opened in a visual glory – you read this and see the film version in your mind long before it's even begun to be made (although it's no surprise to learn it soon will be).
In the end this is not a book merely tagging along on the coat-tails of prestige, for it has a heart, an intelligence, and charms aplenty all of its own. It's definitely one to go to the forefront of the shelves of sequels, prequels, crime novels and other variants on Austen.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
One of those better looks at a weirdly different Austen is to be hand with The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James.
You can read more book reviews or buy Longbourn by Jo Baker at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Longbourn by Jo Baker at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.