I finally read Longbourn, by Jo Baker, because I read about it at Bookshelves of Doom (a blog I enjoy and trust) and also because I saw it on a lot of "best of" fiction lists last year. And hey, I cannot turn down books based on Jane Austen's works.
Longbourn (the title is from the name of the house in the Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, of course, where the Bennets live, and the inheritance of which is entailed away from the Bennet daughters) follows the plot points of Pride and Prejudice closely (exactly, as a matter of fact), only from the point of view of Sarah, one of the Bennets' household servants. As Jane and Lizzy are busy trying to sort out their prospective romances with Bingley and Darcy, the servants' lives of routine and order and never-ending work are also shifted. The household is also changed by the addition of a new servant named James, a young man who seemingly appears out of nowhere, and who is just a bit too uninterested in Sarah, if you know what I mean. Various subplots involving the long-suffering Mrs. Hill and other bit players such as Wickham round out the story.
It was interesting, a good idea, and it is written well. I enjoyed both Sarah and James as characters, particularly James, whose truly upstanding nature provides a nice counterpoint to Austen's Darcy. It was hard to put down, really, until I read the whole thing.
So why didn't I love it?
Well, I just didn't. I think it might be hard to love Austen the way I do and to also love this.* Austen's writings are romantic, of course, and sharp in their own way--old Jane obviously knew plenty about human foibles and weaknesses and neatly skewered a wide variety of them in her various novels. But they are not really dark. Or ugly. Take Wickham. Now, in the original book, Wickham is a capital-S Scoundrel who preys on girls who are really a teensy bit younger than they should be. But the ickiness factor is compounded here. Consider this exchange between Wickham and the very young Lonbourn housemaid Polly:
"'How old are you, Little Miss?'
'Don't know quite. Twelve, thirteen, maybe. Why?'
'Shall I buy you some pineapple bonbons, then, and send them back to you?'
Polly stared up at his big face, which everybody said was handsome; the sprouting moustache, the open pores between his eyebrows, the broken veins on his nose. Grown-ups could be so very unpleasant to look at, if you got too close.
'Oh, would you, though? Would you really?'
She wanted to ask what the other flavours were, before she committed herself to pineapple; whether there would be lemon drops and cough candy, coltsfoot rock and aniseed.
'I would. I will. If you'll be sweet to me now.'" (pp. 207-208.)
Uck. You know, I don't really need too much help picturing the earthiness behind Regency England. Every time I finish a re-read of an Austen novel I mentally add the line: "And they lived happily ever after, until Lizzie [or insert heroine name here] died giving birth to their first child a year later." So yeah, I can do dark. But for fiction, fun reading? I guess I just prefer the lighter touch of the Austen source material.
*Maybe not. Perhaps I'm completely wrong on this point.