Review of AUDIOBOOK Longbourn by Jo Baker #Brainfluffbookreview #Longbournbookreview

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Like so many other folks, I’m a huge Jane Austen fan – and Pride and Prejudice was my go-to comfort read for several decades. So I was delighted to hear about this retelling from the viewpoint of the servants at Longbourn – and so decided to treat myself to the Audible version, narrated by the wonderful Emma Fielding.

BLURB: ‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’
It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.

This started so very well. I loved Sarah, the intelligent and lively young maid-of-all-work, hired from the Poor House when she was only six years old by Mrs Hill, the housekeeper, after her family died of typhus. Now, as a teenager, she finds the drudgery and sheer monotony of the work, chafes her spirit. She longs for some adventure and a break from the routine of never-ending, back-breaking housework in the days when every cleaning product had to be made by hand and hardly any domestic aids to lighten the load existed. Baker depicts life below stairs so very well, and her characterisation of all the servants, Mrs Hill in particular, is nuanced and detailed.

But as the story wore on, I felt the pacing suffered in the face of all the domestic trivia. Baker had clearly done shedloads of historical research on the clothing, the food, the duties of the servants… Unfortunately, she also got very caught up in regaling her readers with far too much of said detail at the overall expense of the narrative, which meant the book dragged in places, which was a real shame.

Unlike some readers, I didn’t have a problem with Baker’s depiction of the Bennet family – of course Elizabeth wouldn’t come across as particularly lively to the servants, or even all that thoughtful. While she was often preoccupied and forgot a detail particularly important to Sarah, it must remembered that was right in the middle of a tumultuous period in her own life. She also never shouted, or threw things at Sarah, pinched or slapped her, which was also often the lot of a domestic servant. I also enjoyed the interlude right away from Longbourn, when we get a ringside seat at the horrors of the Peninsular Campaign during the Napoleonic Wars. It gave us a bit of a break from the constant domestic round and a real insight into the brutality many working-class men endured, once they joined up.

As for the overall plot – I thought the plotline charting Mrs Hill’s story was stunningly successful, from beginning to end, particularly the way in also encompassed poor Mrs Bennet’s life. If the book had chosen to feature Mrs Hill as the main protagonist, this would have been an outstanding read from me. But it wasn’t – Sarah was the main character featured throughout, until nearly at the end of the book, when she simply disappears, only to make a fleeting and highly unsatisfactory reappearance right at the very end.

I couldn’t believe it. I went back and replayed it, in case I missed a bunch of crucial details – but I hadn’t. I had no idea if she was happy with the life she ended up choosing. And that ending plain didn’t make sense, either. No one dared send any letters for fear of being traced – and then… suddenly that didn’t matter anymore! I can’t say more for fear of Spoilers, but I found the ending contrived and unconvincing. What a shame! There was so much that was well done, but I came away disappointed that this book didn’t fulfil its early promise.
6/10

8 responses »

  1. Oh wow, I feel your pain just reading this review! It sounds like it has loads of potential , and isn’t it frustrating when you know the author has chosen the wrong narrator to tell her story?

    • Thank you, Hayley. It was a real shame, especially as Baker is clearly a talented writer with much to offer – but frankly I found the narrative arc for the young protagonist bizarre…

    • Thank you Rae. I never like say negative things about books – but I was frankly flummoxed at the direction this one took. Clearly not everyone has had an issue with the storyline, but I wanted to flag that there were problems with it.

  2. What a dilemma – I read this one quite some time ago and really enjoyed it – particularly seeing Longbourn from such a different perspective, but now I’ve read your review I’m ashamed to say I can’t recall that ending at all! Maybe I should go back and take look.
    Lynn 😀

    • There is so much to love about this one that I was extremely frustrated that I found that ending so very unsatisfactory. But I was clearly in the minority…

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