When I first heard about Longbourn - a kind of Downton Abbey meets Pride and Prejudice, telling the stories of the staff serving The Bennet family - I was very excited and couldn't wait to start reading. I was very fortunate to receive an early proof copy a few months back and eagerly began to read while on a break in Devon. I wanted to love it. I ended up feeling the complete opposite...
I am a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice. I read it about once a year to enjoy the wit, romance and the cast of brilliant characters. I think it's fair to say that most fans of the book enjoy it for the same reason - some escapism into Georgian society. So why did Jo Baker decide to include so much grimness into Longbourn? I can kind of see why. The elegance and gentleness of the Bennet girls is in stark contrast to what the servants have to do on a daily basis - scrubbing soiled clothes and sheets, making soap from pigs fat and plucking chickens. But do we really need to know about Elizabeth Bennet's monthly courses - I think the all round answer is a firm no.
So, to the story. It follows maid Sarah, who works for housekeeper Mrs Hill and her husband alongside a younger girl called Polly. The team are joined by a mysterious footman called James, who suddenly appears and there is instant antagonism between him and Sarah. Meanwhile, Sarah meets the charming Ptolemy, a member of Mr Bingley's staff across at Netherfield, who shows an unhealthy interest in Sarah. Sound familiar? The second part of the book, follows James' history serving his country in war and the horrors of what he had to endure. Again, I can see what the author was trying to do, to explore the juxtaposition between life in Meryton and the life of a soldier, but it just sends the novel astray and it never quite comes back to the world of Pride and Prejudice.
None of the new characters introduced are likeable and the author does not show much understanding of the staple Pride and Prejudice characters, never quite catching their voices or characters. (Apart from maybe Mrs Bennet, but then she is such a caricature, she is a very easy character to recreate). Every now and again, the author seems to remember the original story and will throw in a reference here and there, but it hardly ever seems authentic.
As the books goes on, it just gets more offensive for me. Not only does it not capture the essence of Pride and Prejudice, but it actually tries to rewrite the much-loved characters and their history. This includes - do not read any further if you do not want spoilers - an affair, illegitimate child, a miscarriage, a Bennett son and a gay relationship. Its almost as if the author had a list of controversial plot lines and was ticking them off as she went along. All completely unnecessary and something which could ruin the original novel for fans. Some of the vulgar language was also uncalled for and terms of endearment such as the over-used 'sweetheart' hardly seem Georgian.
I have read many a spin-off or version of Pride and Prejudice, and while they seem indulgent, they are usually quite fun, light-hearted and 'fan-girly' - a celebration of Jane Austen's work. But Longbourn just made me a little frustrated and angry and includes none of the reasons why Pride and Prejudiece is such a timeless classic and has such an army of fans. I have heard mixed reviews for Longbourn, so maybe this is just one that will divide people. I would love to hear your thoughts on the comment section below!