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170 of 184 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Longbourn
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the market is oversaturated with Jane Austen pastiches. Toss some zombies or a murder mystery into Austen's elegant accounts of the travails of the landed gentry, and you've got something that lots of people will buy, out of embarrassed curiosity if nothing else. I imagine the marketing of Jo Baker's LONGBOURN will target that...
Published 10 months ago by Brendan Moody

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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A well-written disappointment
First, let me confess my own prejudice: I'm opposed to the current tidal wave of books that rejigger beloved texts.

From "March" (based on "Little Women" from the POV of the father) to "The Wide Sargasso Sea" (based on "Jane Eyre" from the POV of the mad wife), I'm totally over it. Why? Because I find the authors lazy. They reap...
Published 7 months ago by Pam K


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170 of 184 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Longbourn, September 2, 2013
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the market is oversaturated with Jane Austen pastiches. Toss some zombies or a murder mystery into Austen's elegant accounts of the travails of the landed gentry, and you've got something that lots of people will buy, out of embarrassed curiosity if nothing else. I imagine the marketing of Jo Baker's LONGBOURN will target that audience, but those expecting a lighthearted parody or a return to beloved characters will be disappointed. This is less a companion to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE than a distant cousin, one that interacts with its relative rarely and in unrevealing ways. Fortunately, the story it tells is interesting enough in its own right to make a rewarding experience, albeit one that won't surprise readers who have more than a superficial knowledge of the period.

Where PRIDE AND PREJUDICE left the Bennet servants as faceless ciphers, in LONGBOURN they are the central characters. There are Mr and Mrs Hill, butler and cook; teenage maid Polly; and the heroine, Sarah. To this small, thinly-stretched team is added James Smith, the new footman. At first Sarah is suspicious of James, whose arrival in the household was the subject of a mysterious argument between Mrs Hill and Mr Bennet. As suspicion hardens into dislike, Sarah finds herself drawn toward the charming footman at neighboring Netherfield, who is also the first black man Sarah has ever seen. As she learns more about these two strange and fascinating arrivals, Sarah takes steps that will change her life forever.

The true subject of LONGBOURN is not, however, Sarah's romantic life, which mirrors Elizabeth's from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and is equally predictable. Baker is concerned instead with the life of the lower classes in Regency England, the deprivation and suffering that produced the gilded world through which Austen's characters moved. This is a worthy topic, though not a new one; attempts to give servants equal time in period pieces go back at least as far as the 1970s TV series UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS. But Austen's novels, with their glittering surfaces and unexpressed but forceful themes beneath, are ideal for that purpose, and Baker does a more than satisfactory job of it. At times she emphasizes the parallels between masters and servants too plainly; I got rather tired of reading descriptions of the Bennets' idle melancholy followed by some variation on "Sarah didn't have the luxury of that." But given how glaring the disparities are, it's hard to describe them at all without sounding unsubtle.

With one brief, charming exception, Baker makes no attempt to imitate Austen's prose, opting instead for a more modern and immediate tone that captures the grim fatalism of the servants' day-to-day existence. Apart from a few instances of distractingly contemporary diction, it works quite well, conjuring for the reader the pain of constant labor, the loneliness of lives confined to a radius of a few miles, and the small pleasures that are all servants can hope for. A late section in which one character's backstory moves the scene away from the English countryside is especially intense; Baker has a real gift for spare, bleak descriptions of physical and emotional devastation.

As noted, lovers of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE won't find much new here, though minor characters like Mr Collins and Mary Bennet are shown in a more sympathetic light, and George Wickham manages to be even worse. There is one major twist to a key character late in the narrative. I can't describe it without spoilers, but I don't think it really works, either in terms of the characters as Austen presented them or as drama in its own right. It has the stink of class-conflict melodrama, which the novel has otherwise avoided. But Baker handles this element as well as it can be handled, and the overall resolution echoes Austen without abandoning LONGBOURN's own distinctive voice. It's surprisingly moving: the characters may not be that complex, but they're human enough to engage our sympathy all the same. This is a fine historical novel, especially recommended to thoughtful readers of Austen and those interested in the darker side of the opulent English past.
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63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic story within a story, August 22, 2013
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This review is from: Longbourn (Kindle Edition)
At work one morning I got very excited listening to an interview on Australian ABC radio: Jo Baker was being interviewed about her new novel Longbourn. The telling of Pride and Prejudice through the servants eyes. I got very excited and was jumping in my seat (thank goodness it was a quiet day and there was no one there to witness me). I thought to myself: I have to get this book NOW!!!

Pride and Prejudice has always been a favourite story of mine. And I often wonder, daydream and imagine what life was like for Lizzy and Darcy. But I had also wondered what life would have been like for the servants of that household.
I can't imagine dealing with Mrs Bennett on a daily basis, both publicly and intimately (shudder at the thought) being a simple, easy task to undertake.

I was sucked-into Jo Baker's story within the first minute of starting the book. Immediately I liked and cared for the servants and I felt for them as they got along and completed their daily tasks(that turn my stomach and make me thankful that I live in this century!).

I found myself crossing my fingers and holding my breath that servant and gentry alike got to live Happily Ever After.

Jo Baker showed respect and attention to detail in incorporating her voice and imagination into the back-story of Jane Austen's masterpiece.

I have not read any other works by Jo Baker yet, but I intend to now asap.
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75 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exquisite, August 18, 2013
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Dr. Eric M. Jones (Wodonga, Victoria, Australia) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Longbourn (Kindle Edition)
I've read a number of Pride & Prejudice derivatives. I have praised Pamela Aiden's 'Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman' and Jan Hahn's 'An Arranged Marriage'. 'Longbourn' is my new pick of the litter. Let me quote briefly from Jo Baker's Author's Note at the end of the Kindle edition. "The main characters in Longbourn are ghostly presences in Pride and Prejudic. They exist to serve the family and the story." In 'Longbourn', the main characters of Pride and Prejudice may not be ghostly, but most are bit players. Powerful bit players, too be sure; but not central to the story. The downstairs story and characters Baker has created certainly held my attention and made me care about them. This is not Upstairs/Downstairs, Gosford Park, or Downton Abbey. A hundred years before the setting of those stories, life is grittier. The Longbourn estate is a small one and the household staff only numbers only five. The work is hard; and the days are very long. Baker has done her homework. Bravo!
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A well-written disappointment, November 26, 2013
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First, let me confess my own prejudice: I'm opposed to the current tidal wave of books that rejigger beloved texts.

From "March" (based on "Little Women" from the POV of the father) to "The Wide Sargasso Sea" (based on "Jane Eyre" from the POV of the mad wife), I'm totally over it. Why? Because I find the authors lazy. They reap benefits they haven't earned, piggybacking on emotions and effects the original author had to sweat to produce. Also, they insert modern attitudes that distort the intentions of the original work. And publishers encourage it because, as with producing the sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster, they can hitch a ride with a proven winner. (BTW, I don't have the same opinion about fan fiction, which to me is based on love, not commerce.)

So you may wonder why, feeling this way, I read "Longbourn." Well, Jane Austen's six books can only be re-read so often. And to its credit, "Longbourn" begins auspiciously. Jo Baker's descriptive powers are exceptional. The reader feels the stiff chapped hands, the dreary cold dawns, the endless, backbreaking drudgery endured by our protagonist Sarah, and by Mrs. Hill and little Polly. There is careful, fascinating detail here about domestic life in the early 19th century. To me, it's the strongest element of the book, and the first third shines because of it.

But for me, the plotting falls apart. Two equally unlikely love interests appear for Sarah, one an ex-slave, the other a mysterious stable boy. Sarah falls predictably in love with one of them, and then loses him due to the evil machinations of the wicked Wickham. The book veers into heart-rending depictions of war in Spain (again, very well-written, yet strangely out of place in this narrative.) Finally, Sarah's behavior has improbably shifted from 19th century submissive to 21st century radical; she acts in ways that would have been unlikely for a working class woman in the 1950s, let alone 1810. By the time the ending rolls around, the characters feel manipulated and off-balance.

By the way, and somewhat ironically, the connection to the narrative of "Pride and Prejudice" is pretty tenuous. It wasn't necessary and I don't know why Jo Baker didn't simply write her own novel from the ground up. Or rather, I do. And as I said before, I'm getting pretty tired of it.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A good idea gone wrong (spoilers in the last paragraph), March 3, 2014
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This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
I really wanted to like this book; I thought it was a good idea to tell the story of the Longbourn servants, showing how little their lives and concerns intersected with those of their employers. And there are some really good things in it. Even more than the note that Lizzy Bennet would have been less carefree about getting her petticoats muddy if she had had to scrub the mud out, I liked the point that in holding back the news of Mr Collins' visit till the day of his arrival just to surprise his family, Mr Bennet is quite uncaringly subjecting the servants not merely to a scramble of last-minute work but actual well-founded fear - Mr Collins will be the next owner of Longbourn, and they have only one chance to make a good enough first impression on him that he will keep them on in his employ and not turn them out.

But, some things just won't do. Jo Baker has obviously done loads of research into domestic life of the period and so she must certainly know that she has given the Bennets an impossibly small household of servants. It's canon that Mr Bennet has £2000 a year plus the interest of his wife' fortune; that they don't save any of it; that they keep a carriage and carriage horses plus at least one riding horse, they have a large garden including a fashionable 'wilderness' and they have coverts of game birds. A household of that size, with that kind of income, would have had - would have needed - at least eleven servants: Samuel and Sarah Adams' 'The Complete Servant', published only 12 years after P&P, states that the household of a gentleman with a family and an income of £1,500-£2000 would require 'A Cook, Housekeeper, two House-maids, Kitchen-Maid, and Nursery-Maid, or other female Servant; with a Coachman, Groom, Footman, Gardener, and an assistant in the Garden and Stable'. Instead, at the start of her book Baker has given the Bennets only a cook-housekeeper, two maids and one elderly manservant. That's only one maidservant more than the impoverished Dashwood ladies in Sense & Sensibility needed to run their poky cottage with 'dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smoked'! (And in real life, less than Parson Woodford and his spinster niece needed in his Norfolk rectory, where they kept no carriage and sent their laundry to be done by a washerwoman, on his modest stipend of £300 a year.)

This matters, because if you're going to major on 'gritty reality', you simply have to keep it real. Yes, household work in the Regency era was hard and squalid in the extreme; but the below-stairs community of Longbourn wouldn't have been anything like as small and isolated as Baker writes it.

I do have other gripes. I've no objection(as some other reviewers seem to have) to Baker including references to sex such as JA couldn't have dreamed of discussing. However, I found the revelation of Mr Hill's love life unconvincing - not that a Regency servant couldn't have had such a love life, but the way the information was dumped on the reader as 'this is a plot point, take it or leave it' without any attempt to weave it into character. And I don't buy Wickham as a paedophile for a moment. It's canon, after all, that Wickham pursues grown-up girls for fun as well as profit, which real-life paedophiles very rarely do. (Nor, come to that, can I believe that any 12-year-old workhouse-reared Regency housemaid could possibly not have known what it meant when a gentleman told you he'd give you sweets if you 'were sweet to him'.) And Baker read two or three books on the Peninsular War but she simply hadn't made sense of the material, so the whole section dealing with James Smith's misfortunes as a soldier in the war in Spain is lamentable; it's full of errors and impossibilities.

It's very sad, because there was a good idea here, and I think Baker is talented enough as a writer to have made a better fist of it than she did.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Glad I had it as a library book and didn't waste money on it., February 9, 2014
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
Jane Austen fans beware! This book totally sickened me. Vulgar does not even begin to describe it. For example:

--The Bennet Family is described as a bunch of lazy people with filthy habits and wasteful ways.
--Mr. Bennet, his bastard child, and his fling with the help.
--Wickham is a pedophile, and I don't mean with teens.
--This book frequently deals with things you don't want to read about at bedtime, like manure, weird boils, nasty laundry with sexual secretions, and the like. The language is profane and graphic.
--The sex is blatant. Very blatant. Includes prostitution and detailed instances of rape.

If you want to end up hating this period of history and the Bennet family in particular, and additionally want to feel mildly nauseated for hours while reading, then read this book. However, if you are a normal Jane Austen enthusiast, do not buy it!!!
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a tidy Austen imitation, October 30, 2013
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This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
In writing Longbourn, it seems that author Jo Baker has read every criticism of Jane Austen and has tried to answer them within one novel. Austen doesn't mention the Napoleonic wars -- check. Austen doesn't portray life realistically, or as Charlotte Bronte observed her uninteresting world is, "a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers" -- check. The characters are reserved and prudish -- check. In fact, it seems Baker wants to answer all of these charges when, in fact, the strength of her narrative is in her portrayal of the most legitimate criticism of Jane Austen, that of her objectifying and largely ignoring the servant class. While Baker seems to believe modern readers require sexuality of every kind, the fact is these gratuitous forays of sexual exploration tend to undermine the importance of the work. Rather than an exploration of the Regency attitude of God-ordained roles for man and how these roles effect those ordained to serve, we get a tawdry romance.

In spite of this criticism, while many Austen enthusiasts may take exception to her portrayal of the characters of Pride and Prejudice, I found her perceptions of them to be insightful. In particular, her portrayals of newly married brides of the gentry class and their trepidation in realizing their happiness wholly within the power of one man is realistic and engaging. She lends a new shade to Mrs. Bennet that is wholly unexpected and, yet, comes across as genuine.

If you pick up this book do not expect to be transported into Jane Austen's world. Jo Baker's world extends far beyond the parlors of Longbourn.
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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Related To, But Very Little LIKE, Pride & Prejudice, September 27, 2013
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Molly P. (Portland, Oregon USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
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There is no shortage of books that are based on, related to, and/or inspired by Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice. In fact, it seems that the literary world has been recently inundated by works that claim a connection with the classic novel. And now, here is Longbourn, whose plot chooses to run alongside the original story, giving readers a glimpse into the lives of the Bennet family's household staff -- notably Sarah, a maid, James, the new footman, and Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper. And it's not pretty. While the Bennet girls go to balls, the servants deal with their dirty laundry. While Mary practices on the pianoforte, Sarah cleans up animal dung.

The novel itself is mediocre. Sure, the author is a descriptive storyteller, with sights, sounds, and smells flying all over the pages. And she has created characters with pasts and passions. But these characters do not leap off the pages. Furthermore, the novel lacks focus, trying to tell the stories of multiple servants, and switching perspectives so often and abruptly that the entire thing feels disjointed, and then, suddenly, there's a big twist, and a big shift -- but things don't get more exciting, only more grim.

Aficionados of Pride & Prejudice will, from time to time, recognize key events from the novel playing out alongside the servants' tales, but may be disappointed to find how little time is spent on our beloved, familiar characters. Mr. Darcy is barely even seen. Elizabeth and Jane have a bit more of a presence, but be prepared to find every member of the Bennet family -- yes, even beloved Lizzy -- to be full of faults, as seen through the eyes of the household staff. Some familiar characters are given a bit more depth than Jane Austen ever intended -- Mr. Collins becomes a sympathetic character, while Wickham actually comes off as worse than ever before. Most of the time, though, the characters P&P fans know and love will not even be in the picture.

Furthermore, the tone of Longbourn is very different from that of P&P. You won't find humor and witticisms here. You WILL find pain, passion, blood, suffering, intrigue, and dirty linen.

I can't say with certainty that a person must be a fan of Pride & Prejudice in order to get anything out of Longbourne, but I can say that just because one IS a fan of P&P doesn't mean she'll be a fan of this novel. The two are very different. Different tone, different focus. That said, it IS interesting to see "the other side", to get a new perspective (just be aware it may taint your views of your favorite characters), and the novel certainly wasn't a wasted read. I enjoyed many parts of it. On the whole, though, I find myself unable to recommend it, even to fellow P&P fans.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Jane Austen would roll over in her grave if she could read this!, December 31, 2013
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As a lover of all things Austen, I was really excited to read this telling of P&P from a different point of view. Boy was I disappointed! The story is crude and undeveloped. The author pays great attention to detail, but most of that detail is there to call fault to the Bennet's. Not to mention the sexual references that would make Miss Austen faint dead away if she could read implications put on her beloved characters. This story could have been so much more. Instead, the author choose to settle for commonplace rough content.
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50 of 62 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Don't expect Jane Austen, November 6, 2013
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This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
I bought "Longbourn" after seeing that several Jane Austen societies had given it a thumbs up. They are notoriously selective in their approval of anything that piggy backs onto Austen's writing, so I took it to be a good sign. The Bennets are one of my favorite fictional families, so I was looking forward to a week immersed in their world by downstairs proxy.
As chapter followed chapter, I felt a slowness - it's not a good sign when you have to tell yourself to give it more time to develop. I eventually realized I was not going to become engaged by the style of writing, and continued to plow through just to see what the author would do. There were beautiful sentences and paragraphs, although too far apart to elevate the book. I also did not expect or want the inclusion of sexual activities, including masturbation, sexual orientation and attempted pedophilia. These were not graphic, but still not my kind of writing.
I believe the major error in "Longbourn" is changing "Pride and Prejudice" individuals in a way not true to their original nature. It's one thing to improve one's understanding of why a not-so-loved character has become the way they are (one of this book's main strengths). It's quite another to soil several beloved individuals in a way that I will have to push out of my mind whenever I read or watch "Pride and Prejudice" in the future. In short, it should not be done.
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Longbourn
Longbourn by Jo Baker (Hardcover - October 8, 2013)
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