The first book for my 2014 highlights review list is Longbourn. I read it back in January on the Eurostar to Paris, and thinking of it casts my mind straight back to chilly January days and the Eurostar speeding through the French countryside towards a Parisian adventure (and the less enthusiastic journey home at the end!)
As a Jane Austen fan, I am a little dubious of the hordes of fan fiction published since her six eponymous works, continuing the lives of her characters and their world. Obviously it’s difficult for anyone to imitate an author’s style exactly, but I feel those doing so with Jane Austen have an even greater challenge, as they have to imitate accurately the language and society of the time. To be successful at doing so, in my opinion, also requires the ability not to turn your sequel into some kind of cringey sex marathon to make up for the repression of the Georgian upper classes. Nevertheless I have read some of them: The Darcys of Pemberley by Shannon Winslow, which was amusing but not the greatest homage to Austen; Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, a fascinating crossover of murder mystery with the married life of the Darcys; and most recently the modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, which was surprisingly good considering the challenges of trying to translate such stories into a modern context.
Longbourn has been described as the servant’s version of Pride and Prejudice. Set at the same time and running concurrently with the storyline, the novel exposes the lives of the forgotten servants below stairs, Sarah and Mrs Hill, as well as a cast of others. However, for the diehard Austen fans, there’s enough of the Bennett family to satisfy, and written suitably in sync with Austen’s portrayal of them. We get a little more of an insight into each of the main players through their interaction with Sarah, the main character. This is particularly interesting because of her social standing: as a servant she ranks far below them all, so it is a test of true credibility from our much-loved characters as to how they treat those seen to be beneath them. There is also a quote from the original Pride and Prejudice at the start of every chapter, which ties in chronologically with what is happening at the time within the story.
There is no danger of this novel falling into the pitfalls I mentioned above. I thoroughly enjoyed almost every moment. As a standalone novel it works well, and adds a new harshness and reality to nineteenth century life. I really felt the biting chill of winter, icy water and frozen fields. It added a new grittiness that the gentility of Jane Austen’s writing omits, and it certainly isn’t afraid to discuss chamber pots, military floggings, chilblains, and any other manner of mundane unpleasantness. But it would be wrong if a book about the people employed to deal with this aspect of life were to gloss over it. But it isn’t just scrubbing mud and blood out of clothes that we are allowed to visualise. The imagery draws the reader into the cold beauty of the British countryside:
“The sun nudged itself up above the hills, flushing the blue morning through with orange. A sheep called; a lamb replied. Shadows reeled out like ribbon…”
This is just an example I picked at random. The imagery is truly stunning, and thinking back to the book immediately places me at Longbourn, back in the heart of the story. Few books have the power, not only to truly captivate me like that, but to hold such a potent memory afterwards in my mind.
I also cared about the characters throughout, and rooted for them all in their own endeavours (with the possible exception of the ever-dastardly Mr Wickham). Sarah was caring, gutsy and hard-working, and it was clear how others relied on her, both the other servants and the Bennett family. I can’t reveal too much about the story, but I enjoyed the character interactions and the way the servants’ stories wove around that of their employers. I found some parts of the story, which dealt with the backstory of newcomer James the footman, to be a little dragging, but aside from that it was engaging throughout.
So I would heartily recommend this book. If you like your historical fiction, if you’re a Jane Austen fan, this will appeal to you. It has lovely imagery, engaging characters, and a plot which can operate independently of its infamous predecessor. A very strong breakout novel from a talented author, and a pleasure to read.
If you’ve been swayed by my review and would like to read Longbourn for yourself, you can buy it here