Tuesday, February 25, 2014


I said I wouldn't count re-reads of Jane Austen novels for my book-a-week challenge, but I didn't say I would avoid new Austen-inspired novels.

Longbourn, by British author Jo Baker, likely will appeal to fans of Downton Abbey as well as Austenites. Ms. Baker has imagined, in astonishing detail, the lives of the Bennet family servants, who are her central characters. Her story tracks that of Pride and Prejudice from the downstairs perspective, where anxiety about the future of Longbourn and its entail is perhaps even more pitched than it is upstairs.

The principal character is Sarah, a housemaid barely mentioned in the original novel. Her days at Longbourn are long with boredom and heavy work that drains her physically and mentally. I've never fully appreciated the wonders of flush toilets and automatic washing machines until I read this novel.

Despite Sarah's hardships, she never fails to notice the tiny delights of the natural world around her. Ms. Baker's vivid descriptions of the English countryside permeate the novel and approach the level of poetry.

Austen's novels were set during the Napoleonic Wars, but those events are barely acknowledged in her stories. The presence of a militia camp in the nearby village of Meryton and its later removal to Brighton is significant only for its romantic implications for the Bennet sisters. Ms. Baker, through the character of the footman and former soldier James, portrays the horrors of those wars.

This is not Austen fan fiction, and Ms. Baker does not attempt to imitate Austen's style. It is simply a famous story retold by a gifted writer from an alternate perspective. Perhaps an apt comparison would be that Longbourn is to Pride and Prejudice as Paula McLain's The Paris Wife is to Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.

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