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194 of 209 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 18 months ago by Brendan Moody

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59 of 67 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 15 months ago by Pam K


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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great concept, but poor execution., May 13, 2014
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This review is from: Longbourn (Kindle Edition)
I was very excited about Longbourn. Jo Baker is slated to be part of the author showcase at the Jane Austen Festival I will be attending in a couple months, and so I wanted to read her book that I had heard so much about. Based on the description and what I heard, I felt it would give the feeling of Downton-Abbey-Meets-Pride-And-Prejudice. I thought this was a truly great concept as I had noticed the servants in Pride and Prejudice... for instance, the Bingleys' footman awaiting a reply about Jane coming for dinner, and Mrs. Bennet sharing her schemes right in front of him. This was bound to have been reported back to the Bingleys, and it would have been interesting to see that scene written out.
However, Baker does not take the novel in this direction. The novel shows very little interaction between the servants and the original storyline. It would have been very interesting to see the scenes from the servants viewpoints - however, all you really see is complete behind the scenes work. The book made life at Longbourn seem absolutely horrid, and the Bennets unkind. Even Lizzy - everyone's beloved Elizabeth Bennet - is on several occasions portrayed as condescending and uncaring. I do not believe that in such a small household as the Bennets possessed that they would have been unkind, uncaring or condescending to their servants, especially a maid who grew up with them.
The story drags along, and in volume three, is very, very dull. The Bennet's footman, James, is a horrid character. He possesses no appealing qualities and is greatly disappointing in his attentions to Sarah all throughout the book. I was so displeased with the lackluster ending, the portrayal of Darcy and Lizzy, and the completely unnecessary details or side plots. As one other reader wrote, I too did not expect to read about sexual orientation, masturbation, and pedophilia in this book. I also did not expect to be reading about soldiers in the war at great length.
Some of my greatest pet peeves of authors who write Austen spin-offs are their use of language, terms, and ideas that were simply not present at the time, and the lack of consistency among the terms and language as the book goes on. I also don't understand how someone can be enough of a fan to write a spin-off, yet miss or change very key and obvious points of the original. Longbourn contains all of these things.
The only thing I will say that I enjoyed about this book was that it gave me insight into what it was like to live in that time domestically. I've always wondered what they did for bathroom needs, or how they styled their hair the way they did, and random things like that, and you do find out. This was the most interesting part of the book.
I will end my review by saying that I may be an Austen snob, and often find error in any spin-off like most of us Austenites do, but I still am capable of enjoying the spin-offs and understand that no one can be Austen. In fact, I have enjoyed most all of the spin-offs I have read. This book gives such a negative view of Pride and Prejudice that I feel tainted by it and will have a hard time overlooking it to enjoy my favorite book and movie. Honestly, I feel as though the book was written by someone who disliked the Bennets and wanted to give them a negative image.
Read at your own risk of not being able to fully enjoy Pride and Prejudice anymore.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A completely different perspective..., October 22, 2013
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This review is from: Longbourn (Kindle Edition)
Jo Baker’s Longbourn (The Servant’s Story) is a somewhat radical departure from the majority of Pride & Prejudice paraliterature, which generally – even if it views the action from a completely different perspective – still keeps the events in Austen’s original story front and centre. In Longbourn, these events are only presented as sideline blips on the radar in the day-to-day lives, trials and tribulations of those who serve the Bennet family. They have more pressing things to think about!

The story is told primarily through the eyes of Sarah, the ‘head’ housemaid under Mrs Hill who, along with her husband Mr Hill, a second, younger housemaid-in-training named Polly, and the mysterious James who joins the household as a manservant, form the main cast of characters. And in reading about what they have to do behind the scenes to keep a ‘gentleman’s family’ running in the smooth and well-ordered fashion required, you get a completely different perspective on Pride & Prejudice and life in the Regency world in general.

One of the things I found most intriguing was how the story managed to show that while the Bennet family (with their relatively modest and entailed estate) was positioned in Austen’s novel as somewhat ‘hanging on’ at the edge of gentile prosperity, they were still SO much more pampered and privileged than they could ever imagine compared to the lives of those who worked for them. Seen through the servant’s eyes, you realise how much hard work others had to do to help ensure the nice and proper home, clothes, food, and entertainments that the Bennets needed to present to the outside world as a gentleman’s family – and expected as their due.

The fact that there are only four servants to start off with says enough – the capable, strict, but (underneath it all) warm-hearted Mrs Hill who acts as both housekeeper and cook (with assistance from the housemaids), her husband who is a de facto butler, handyman and groundskeeper, and then Sarah and Polly – both of whom were taken out of orphanages as children and trained in-house to be servants. The Bennets are not a family who can afford a lot of them. So... how does it come about that the mysterious James is suddenly added to the household, Hmm....?

As all these characters go about their business, you do touch base now and then with specific events in Pride & Prejudice – such as when Sarah helps Elizabeth dress for the Netherfield ball, or Mrs Hill is anxiously fussing about preparing the bedroom for Mr Collins’s (her potential future employer!) as perfectly as possible. Those scenes not only make you see the Pride & Prejudice story in a broader perspective, but get you really involved in the lives of these people who – without the resources of having been born into a ‘gentleman’s family’ – are still hoping for and struggling to achieve a relatively dignified and happy life of their own.

Social iniquity, the Napoleonic war and slave trade – none of these are issues that Austen dealt with. All of them move more to the forefront here, but not in an manner that makes for a pedantic or unpleasant reading experience. To the contrary! As the plot progresses, these elements work together within the P&P background to throw a few really jaw-dropping twists at the reader, as well as to give an unexpected “downstairs” mirror to the hopes, dreams and romances developing “upstairs”. Jo Baker has a great writing style and has used it to put together a very good and gripping story that will now always make me look at Pride & Prejudice through very different eyes.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars 2.5 stars, December 17, 2013
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
I was intrigued to read this: a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of a housemaid. Fanfiction doesn't appeal to me; seeing beloved characters reimagined by someone other than the author who made me love them generally is not something I find emotionally fulfilling. And in any case, while I like Pride and Prejudice, it's never been a favorite. I do, however, enjoy retellings, which have a different appeal, casting new light on old stories or playing with perspective in ways that make readers rethink our assumptions. So it makes sense to me that Baker set her tale of Regency servitude within the framework of a beloved classic: not just for commercial reasons, but for its potential to make readers think about whose stories we consider important. It's hard to dismiss the Bennets as privileged and oblivious when we've vicariously enjoyed that privilege already, with no more thought to the servants than they have.

In that sense, Longbourn is a successful retelling, depicting the behind-the-scenes stories of the servants who toil to make their employers' lives agreeable. For instance, Baker takes a sentence from Austen--"from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once... [T]he very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy"--and unpacks it: the weather was too miserable for the Bennet girls to step outdoors, so they sent a servant out into it to fetch their doodads instead. It's a fair interpretation, though often a gritty one that may not appeal to Austen fans. There is a lot about bodily functions here, down to the contents of the chamber pots that Sarah carries out. Without indoor plumbing, that is of course part of the servants' lives, but at times the focus seems excessive, as if Baker finds the Bennets' having bodily functions at all to be shocking or shameful.

My greater reservation about the retelling, however, is that almost all of Baker's points are made within the first chapter. This quote from the third page sums it up nicely: "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." Two pages after that, Lydia complains to the overworked and underappreciated housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, about how hard her own life is. The rest of the book repeats what we learn in Chapter 1: that the work of a servant is exhausting, thankless, demeaning, and likely to cause chilblains.

Of course, this isn't just a response to Pride and Prejudice, but also a story in its own right, and on that level it was only mildly successful for me. It gets off to a slow start and sags in the middle, so that halfway through I nearly put it down unfinished. It does improve, however: the last third is the strongest, and while the lengthy Napoleonic Wars flashback near the end is a bit odd structurally, it's effective at portraying the devastation of war and adding resonance to the novel. Meanwhile, the main protagonist, Sarah, is notable mostly for reactions that seem too modern for her time: "really no one should have to deal with another person's dirty linen" she thinks on the second page--in a time when laundry is heavy manual labor this is a radical opinion, and there's no explanation of how Sarah came to it. In another incident she happens by the barracks when a soldier is being flogged, and is sickened and traumatized by the event even though she's never met the person and isn't otherwise unusually sensitive. I never quite believed that a real servant in the 1810s would think the way Sarah does.

In the meanwhile, Sarah's inevitable love interest (I won't spoil who it is, because Baker teases us with a love triangle, but it's really obvious) also lacks personality and comes across as a standard male love interest. The most interesting character is the long-suffering Mrs. Hill, though savvy readers will spot her big secret from a mile away. The characters from Pride and Prejudice remain mostly in the background, and Baker seems to rely on our knowing them already from Austen's work. Some (Elizabeth, Wickham, and especially Mr. Bennet) are reinterpreted in ways unlikely to be popular with fans, though others (Mr. Collins, Mary, Mrs. Bennet) get an interestingly sympathetic treatment. Mrs. Hill's campaign to impress Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas is one of the best parts of the book.

Long story short, this is a decent mainstream novel to while away some time, if you don't object to reading a generic romance between a pair of blandly inoffensive young people, and it has the added bonus of a social conscience. The writing is fine, though I wouldn't put it in the literary category (the characterization isn't that deep in any case), and Baker appears to have done her research. It wasn't quite as interesting thematically as I'd hoped, though, and it's not the best tale of servant life that I've read. For novels that delve more deeply into the lives of English servants (albeit in different time periods) I'd recommend Lady's Maid or The Remains of the Day first. Two and a half stars.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Does not live up to the hype, January 12, 2014
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
This book was published with so much advance hype I was really expecting something beyond ordinary. But without the gimmick of being below stairs at P&P, I really think this would have slipped into the bookstream unnoticed, as yet another standard Regency romance. As for any connection to P&P, it's slender and tortured at best. I am not a defender of all things Austen, but even I felt sparkling Elizabeth and her sweet sister Jane were unfairly portrayed as vapid and thoughtless. The book's highpoint is that it paints a well-researched and accurate portrait of the hard toil servants of the day performed, and the lack of choice and personal freedom that was at their disposal. The main characters, like actors in a skimpy play, lack motivation to build on. Sarah's initial dislike of James is as inexplicable as his nearly instant fondness for her.

The main problem with the book is that the plot is too thin to make for a compelling read. There are a few red herrings, but they are so obvious and so quickly resolved that nothing resembling narrative drive takes hold. Not much happens, and the book consists largely of descriptions of landscape, hard work, and glimmers of life upstairs. The first two-thirds of the book were pleasant enough, but took a turn for the worse with the third volume, where a bewhiskered old plot device is trotted out as a revelation and, after that, we flash back to the Napoleonic wars for 35 pages that seem like 100, all to be told explicitly what we have already figured out. This completely killed whatever interest I'd worked up in the characters' fates. After we finally return to the here and now of the story, the book's lack of originality is unavoidable. I wouldn't have bothered to finish it except that by then I was only 60 pages from the end. So, a tolerable read, but nothing that held my attention or won my heart, and utterly devoid of Austen's impressive wit.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Just Missed the Mark to get a 5 Star Review from Me!, September 25, 2013
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Ms Winston (East Coast U.S.A.) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
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I had very high hopes for Jo Baker's "Longbourn," but as I indicated in the title of my review, it just missed the mark for a 5 star review. I think that the idea of the book was so very original -- "Pride and Prejudice" from the point of view of the servants in the Bennet household -- that I perhaps expected more than the author was able to deliver. Anyone who has read Jane Austen's most famous works, her six novels, knows that the author rarely mentioned the downstairs staff. We know from "Pride and Prejudice" that Fitzwilliam Darcy's housekeeper at his estate was Mrs Reynolds, as she appears toward the end of the book to give Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt and uncle a tour in Mr Darcy's absence. It is an interesting fact that in the 19th century that strangers often took tours of estates when the owner was absent. Today we'd be calling for the police!

The main characters of "Longbourn" are the teenage maids, Sarah and Polly, the housekeeper and cook, Mrs Hill, her husband, the new footman, and in an unexpected plot twist, a bi-racial male servant (Tol) from the Bingley estate who may be the half-brother of Charles Bingley, suitor of Jane Bennet. Much of the book is told from Sarah's point of view, and she is a romantic girl at heart. In some ways she is similiar to Austen's "Northanger Abbey" heroine Catherine Moreland, who saw Gothic elements in the most harmless artifacts. Sarah spins a whole life narrative about the new footman, James Smith, some of it as the heroine of her own fantasy that Smith is a criminal whose past she will expose. This is primarily because he is ignorning her for reasons of his own when he actually finds her quite attractive. She also is smitten with the servant Tol Bingley, and risks the wrath of Mrs Hill to smoke a cigarillo with him. I found this aspect to be rather unbelievable, as I also found Sarah's conversation with Mr Collins when she presumes to ask his advice about her attraction to Tol. I seriously doubt that any servant of that time period would dare so address a person of Mr Collin's station, and a guest in the house, even if he was a man of the cloth. But even those bits of oddness are not what caused me to give it a 4 instead of 5 star rating --- not even half way through the book it just started to stray from the original premise and go more to flights of fancy regarding the two footmen. I also thought it rather odd that the author had the Bingley footman be a mulatto servant and son of a female slave from the islands. I know that one of the movie versions of "Mansfield Park" suggested that the elder Mr Bertram had relations with female slaves when he was at the plantations in the West Indies, but I am hard-pressed to see how that fits into the "Pride and Prejudice" narrative.

The best aspects of the book to me were the glimpses we had of the Bennet family though the eyes of the servants, especially those of us familar with the original work. Sarah obviously admires Jane and Elizabeth, as do all fans o' Austen. We see how the servants look upon Eliabeth's spoiling her petticoats on her famous walk to Netherfield Park to stay with her sick sister, Jane. We see the servants reactions to washing the underwear and sanitary cloths of the girls, empty the chamberpots every morning, and in many respects know much about the young ladies than the latter will ever know, or care to know, about the servants who make their lives so comfortable. Sarah sees Lydia and Kitty as the shallow young girls that they are, and later Lydia as the smug 16 year old bride of the feckless Wickham, the latter who flirts shamelessly with naive Polly. While I had figured out the mystery of James Smith early on in the book, when the writer decided to tell the readers it was quite touching. Even with the flaws, I liked the writing style of the book, as it had a slightly old fashioned feel to it, without trying to duplicate Austen. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the works of Austen, even though some aspects of it are not terribly realistic. What is next, Ms Baker?
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing and crude at times, November 16, 2013
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
I thought this was a great concept and was excited to read it but I was very disappointed. I don't want to spoil anything so I will keep this general. I love P&P and have been called a "purist", so I am easily disappointed. The style was not in keeping with the era, it felt very modern to me. The storyline was thin. The relationships felt forced and I found that I didn't really care about the main character or her love interests... There was vulgarity for vulgarity's sake; it was like the editor told the author it needed more grit and it was just added in random places. I have read of some Downton Abbey comparisons and I will quote from the character Violet Crawley that "vulgarity is no substitute for wit". I finished the book just out of my own need to finish what I start, but I didn't have any real interest in what happened. In short, I do not recommend this book and am a little upset at myself for wasting the time and money. I was very surprised to see the good reviews, so maybe I missed something. But then again I've only read one piece of fan fiction for P&P that I enjoyed out of the 20 or so that I've tried, so that should speak volumes.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing and VULGAR, February 6, 2014
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
I had high hopes for Longbourn because the premise sounded fun but when the maids, who share beds, start masturbing, I was offended and utterly disappointed to the point of feeling angry. Jane Austen would NOT approve.
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40 of 53 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing, even vulgar read, November 27, 2013
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
It gets much worse - not better. SPOILERS follow. At the beginning, I thought the plotlines sounded interesting, in spite of the awkward writing style. As I read on, I was turned off by the constant and unnecessary graphic descriptions of the household's filthy laundry - I lost count of the references to the Bennet family's sanitary napkins, sweat, mud-coated petticoats, and chamber pot contents. I have no idea what the author was trying to accomplish through this. It read as if they were being shamed for having bodily functions, though they treated their servants with respect and generosity. There's a jarring scene of Sarah masturbating which is completely out of place and incongruous to the tone of the novel. I held out hope that there would be some fascinating resolution and explanation for the "mysterious" new footman James' behavior, which was the only reason I kept reading. But, the ending of this book is terrible. The descriptions of James' horrific experiences at war were no doubt realistic, but very disturbing, with detailed accounts of human and animal slaughter. He abandons Longbourn after Wickham's threat of exposing his past, and never returns for Sarah. Many months later, although she has a comfortable situation at Pemberley with Elizabeth, she quits to go find him. She does. And there is no more to the story except that they show up at Longbourn at some point in the future with their baby. What? How is it that he is suddenly safe? Where did they get the money to travel so far, and with a child? Why would Sarah still want a man who abandoned her with no explanation whatsoever? If he cared enough he could have found a way to tell her what was going on, at least. My last complaint is that this novel's happenings are intertwined with recognizable scenes in P&P (balls, Lydia's elopement, etc) but these scenes have no relation to or effect on Longbourn's storylines. It's very clunky and pointless. Unless, of course, you're interested in hearing how dirty the Bennets got their clothes that day. I was very irritated that I wasted so much time on this.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mud and chilblains, October 8, 2013
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This review is from: Longbourn (Kindle Edition)
This is a thoroughly believable ground level layer to Pride and Prejudice. It does include well researched war conditions of the time. This is definitely movie material. Austen fans should enjoy this new dimension to the classic. The characters are well drawn and their stories, independent of those 'above stairs', are engaging. There is some uneveness in pace and, with the story being about the lower class, there is a modicum of sex and violence. It is not a tale of Regency drawing rooms, but of those whose work made the lifestyle of their 'betters' possible.
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34 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Such a great premise but a disappointing finish, September 3, 2013
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
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As a downstairs perspective of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn has the marks of a bestseller in the making. The story centers on Sarah, a maid at Longbourn (the Bennet's home). We see snippets of P&P storyline and characters, and follow along with Sarah in her interactions with other servants and the Bennet family. At first, it is fairly easy to follow along with the P&P storyline and how it lines up with Longbourn's, but as the plot progresses it gets harder to figure out when this is taking place. The one service Ms. Baker does is that in reading Longbourn you want to read (or re-read) Pride and Prejudice.

While nothing can match up the formidable Jane Austen, Jo Baker makes a concerted effort, but unfortunately falls a bit short. Which is especially disappointing with such a rich premise and the few hiccups (see below) could've been edited out for a better story.

I was really looking forward to reading Longbourn... A combination of my love for Pride and Prejudice with a dash of Downton Abbey, what's not to like?? The story starts out strongly, it was a nice, cozy read that grabbed my attention and made me wish that I had more time to sit down and keep reading. Well... then there were some bumps in the road and then some more. I thought (and the way it began seemed to follow this) that Longbourn would be more along the lines of a classic, pretty G-rated in terms of profanity, sensuality and violence. But Ms. Baker threw in some things that adulterated the lovely story that she was telling (in turn tainting it's predecessor, Pride and Prejudice). First there was a mention of masturbation. Okay it was just a line, while completely unnecessary and out of place, I can skip over that. Then there was some sex "scenes", again I can skip that, as she was good enough to keep that closed-door. But then she had to taint the image of one of P&P characters, a big no-no, especially since I feel like this book was intended to do homage to Austen's work. And the story ends with a handful of f-bombs, again completely off-putting and out of place, and some scenes of violence. Please note, I am a conservative reader, if these things don't bother you, then your enjoyment of Longbourn wouldn't be as aversely effected as mine was.

Overall, it was a good read but a disappointing one. From the glowing reviews, I expected more... Fans of JA fiction would enjoy these more: Pamela Aidan's Gentleman Trilogy (starts with An Assembly Such as This: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman), or more contemporary spins Syrie James' The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen LP and The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen.

Fans of Downton Abbey, who are not as familiar with P&P, will find some to enjoy here. There are quite a few books on the market now, trying to capture DA fan's attention, a smart marketing ploy as fans are eagerly awaiting its return and looking for something to fill the void. But true Austenites may have the same qualms as I did. I went in expecting at least a Heyer quality regency, and was disappointed that the modern "requisites" (sex, violence, etc.) to a "good" story were to be thrown in, thus tainting my enjoyment of the story. As a book based on a classic, beloved novel, these add-ins taint the beauty and innocence of the original story. P&P is a timeless story, it's a shame that Longbourn couldn't have better capitalized on it's essence.

So in this year of its 200th anniversary, read or re-read Pride and Prejudice instead. And if you feel so inclined, check this one out from the library.
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Longbourn
Longbourn by Jo Baker (Hardcover - October 8, 2013)
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