Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Three stars, read in February 2014.

I really don’t do Jane Austen fanfiction, or adaptations or whatever you want to call them; I love Austen’s books, but I don’t love her as a Thing (in Internetspeak), and the fanfiction has just never appealed to me. I have to admit that I roll my eyes every time I see a new “Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife” or whatever on the bookstore shelves, and wish those authors would write something new. I read Austenland because I had loved Shannon Hale’s YA books, but I didn’t care for it. The only sort-of fanfiction I enjoy, it seems, is Bridget Jones’s Diary, and I’m pretty sure that’s because it’s not marketed as Austen fanfiction; it’s not attempting to imitate the style, it’s not about the actual characters, and you could read the entire thing without having the slightest interest in P&P. The references seem incidental rather than focal.

But I was actually excited for Longbourn, because the approach was so unique; I loved that someone had thought to consider Pride and Prejudice from the standpoint of the servants. I was looking forward to the class commentary, the development of the servants as whole, visible characters. And Baker delivered on that—Mrs. Hill, in particular, is imagined into an engaging backstory, and you can’t help being just a little less enamored with Elizabeth Bennet when you get to know the woman who has to clean the mud out of all those petticoats. I liked the way Baker handled Mrs. Bennet, who gets a bad rap in the movies, and Mr. Bennet, who is really kind of an ass when you think about it.

But, while I appreciated the new depth, I was still just . . . not sold. Maybe it was Baker’s style, which was a little too intentionally gritty and dark at times, meant (I assume) to force Austen lovers past the white muslins and cross-stitching and pretty simplicity they love to swoon over. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for the person who loves to love P&P, because this version could either ruin it for you or just be totally unenjoyable. But if you’re interested in the premise and don’t mind the disillusionment, it may well be worth your time just to have had the experience. It wasn’t my favorite, but I’m glad this take on the story exists.

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