Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn contains some beautiful writing and a compelling plot. No, it wouldn't work without the P&P story overarching it, but still, the plot points manage to be as independently interesting as possible, which is quite an achievement.

I also thought Baker's take on some of Austen's characters was well done and felt that her portrayals of Mr. Collins, Wickham, and Elizabeth Bennet were particularly spot-on. And James, the footman, one of Baker's original creations, is as noble and likeable as any of Austen's own heroes; more so, in my opinion, since his lack of money could easily have made him desperate and unscrupulous. He's like an impoverished Mr. Knightly with a dark secret.

But on the minus side the book has some serious flaws and, in my opinion, they all involve the dirty details: how many scenes involving the lugging of chamber pots, scraping mud off of boots, or cleaning dirty diapers (soiled by the Gardiner kids) do the readers need before we get the point that, yes, the maids were given tasks that no one else wanted to do? There are several scenes having nothing to do with excrement or mud where the ick level goes absolutely off the charts, making Baker's quest to bring realism to the original story seem extremely heavy-handed.

Most of this, it seems, is to illustrate how difficult life was for the servants of this time period. Point taken -- again and again and again -- but in my opinion Baker's chief error is having protagonist Sarah constantly complaining internally about her grueling tasks while endlessly comparing her life with those she serves. I don't think many 18th/19th century people in service would have done much of either. Twenty-first century people transported back in time? Definitely. But there's no time travel going on here except for the reader who, though appreciative of the time Baker took to research what life was like for servants in Jane Austen's day, might have liked a more accurate depiction of their thought processes as well.