Dear Longbourn by Jo Baker,
I’ve had my eye on you for a while. When I was in high school I worked as a page at my local library, and I would often pick you up when I walked by you on the shelf and read your inside flap, intrigued by your basic premise. A book about the servants from Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice? A behind the scenes look at the Bennet family? I knew that someday I would have to read you.
Fast forward to over five years later when I was scrolling through my audiobook app and found a version of you to listen to.
It’s been a few weeks since I finished reading you, Longbourn, but I still have so many mixed feelings about you.
On the one hand, you offer an intriguing hypothetical look at what being a servant in the Bennet household might have been like in Pride and Prejudice. I appreciated your faithful characterization of the Bennet sisters (from what I can remember of the last time I read Jane Austen’s novel) and the depth you showed in characterizing the new figures in that we meet, namely Sarah (the servant) and James, her love interest. Most importantly, I enjoyed how Pride and Prejudice served as a backdrop to your story, and how you are beautifully written.
However, you ultimately left me feeling a bit odd about not only your story, but also that of Jane Austen. I was completely on board with you for you first half, but then you lost me along the way. First, you were much, much darker than I initially expected. Gone were the happy, go-lucky days of the Bennet sisters; instead, there was unrequited love, sexual harassment, adultery, poverty, heartache, and loss. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised to read this things in this context, but they did catch me a bit off guard.
My main issue regarding this unexpected darkness was that it implicated some of the characters from Pride and Prejudice in a way that I think was unnecessary and uncalled for. I fear that now whenever I go back and reread that classic novel I won’t be able to get these hypothetical allegations out of my mind. (I’ll keep my discussion of this vague for those readers who have yet to read you, but if they’ll read you then they surely know what I’m referring to.) I feel as though there were ways to bring issues like this to light in your context without besmirching the stories of some beloved P&P characters.
“The ladies, who had condoled so thoroughly with her during her time of grief, found it rather more difficult to participate in her happiness, which takes a true and proper friend indeed.”Longbourn by Jo Baker
As I previously mentioned, I first heard you described as a sort of companion novel to Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind I expected (and maybe even hoped) you would be what Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is to Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys exposes the insidious racism lurking behind the attic door in the form of the “madwoman in the attic”–a character that Rhys breathes humanity into which was sorely lacking in Bronte’s characterization of her. In this way, Wide Sargasso Sea is a profound, unsettling, striking reimagining of this aspect of Jane Eyre, one that calls into question so many aspects of other classic novels in the Western canon.
Unfortunately, you did not strike me as the profound, eye-opening companion novel that part of me had hoped you would be; rather, you focused more on family dynamics and romance than about making a statement regarding servants in England during this time. And that is perfectly fine, since you obviously were never made to adhere to the whims of my expectations. But it was a slight disappointment nevertheless.
And yet for all my criticisms of you, Longbourn, I’ve still found myself thinking of you quite often since I finished listening to you weeks ago. So perhaps there was some method to your madness after all. You’ve certainly made me think and ponder and wonder, and isn’t that what we want from books?
It’s what I want, at least. So thanks for that.