Ever since Virgil decided he could best glorify his emperor with the characters and style of Homer, the spin-off has been a prominent literary form. Writers such as Jean Rhys (“Wide Sargasso Sea”) and Gregory Maguire (“Wicked”) have achieved success through exploring unaddressed aspects of classic works; the best of these have managed to illuminate these aspects of the story while strongly maintaining their connection to the source material. In more recent years, however, the line between the literary spin-off and a genre of somewhat less repute—fanfiction—has blurred to the point that it is not clear into what category some novels published today may fall.
To criticize “Longbourn” as falling on the fanfiction side of this boundary, however, would miss the point entirely. Author Jo Baker’s attempt to create a hybrid of “Downton Abbey” and “Pride and Prejudice” in which the Bennets’ servants take on the primary roles may actually be farther from fanfiction than “The Aeneid” in that it bears almost no resemblance to the source material. Throughout the novel, Baker struggles to remind her reader that her book is written in the context of Austen’s own novel: she herself did not invent the upstairs residents of Longbourn. She does so most prominently by commencing each chapter with a quote from “Pride and Prejudice,” a strategy that, given Austen’s predisposition toward sharp witticisms, could prove entertaining and useful. Baker, however, selects meaningless and strictly plot-related excerpts: one chapter even commences “Saturday…Sunday” as if the days of the week are somehow evocative of the original novel. Many of the quotes are comparably vague and could only be recognized by a fanatic—but such a reader would know Elizabeth and Darcy’s story so well that the quotes would not need to serve their orienting purpose.
Beyond this, the novel scarcely connects to its source material beyond its peripheral mention of the Bennet family and inclusion of the novel’s major plot points. Thematically and tonally, it is disorientingly different than Austen’s novel. Baker has, for example, made the jarring and unnecessary choice to utilize profanity in her adaptation. Her narrative voice is also completely antithetical to Austen’s: her characters’ thoughts are stated frankly and dramatically, as when Sarah, the novel’s protagonist, has something of an existential revelation and “knew now…why their continuance in this sequestered place was entirely worth the while.” One cannot help but draw contrasts with the more subtle emotions and revelations of “Pride and Prejudice” while reading. Such outright declarations feel painfully juvenile.
“Longbourn” succeeds when Baker hearkens back to Austen: Sarah nearly runs away with one of Mr. Bingley’s servants à la Lydia, and her ultimate love interest has a tense moment with Mr. Wickham like Mr. Darcy did. The themes and implications of Austen’s work do at times carry over well. These moments, however, are few; “Longbourn” seems mostly an unrelated documentation of a set of servants working in a 19th-century British home.
This could make a fine novel, were it well written and crafted. Unfortunately, “Longbourn” is neither a successful adaptation nor a successful novel in and of itself. Another one of Baker’s missteps is her decision to address the experiences of the other servants who work alongside Sarah by abruptly transitioning to their points of view, so suddenly that it is not always immediately clear any change has occurred. Occasionally, a paragraph or two will be devoted to the perspective of another servant, in the midst of a portion seemingly restricted to Sarah’s perspective. This is simply clumsy writing, and it is furthermore unnecessary: the novel would have felt far more contiguous and tight had Sarah been the sole third-person narrator. Other aspects of the novel are similarly addressed without finesse—for example, it is not clear that one of the characters is a child until halfway through the book.
These shortcomings all cloud what appears to be Baker’s primary goal in writing her novel: to bring attention to the unpleasantries masked by Austen’s narrowly focused works. When Sarah, for example, encounters Mr. Bingley’s mulatto footman, she wonders if he is “what they called a black man, then, even though he was brown? An African? But Africans were cross-hatched, inky, half-naked and in chains.” In these moments one is suddenly reminded of the historical context of “Pride and Prejudice,” especially the many groups of people completely ignored in Austen’s body of work. Baker thus does succeed in not only enriching her own novel, but her source material as well. Similarly, Baker contradicts the judgments of Elizabeth and Austen, as when Sarah thinks of Mr. Collins, “He was just a child himself…. And lonely. He was the kind of man who probably always would be.” Here, Baker wonders convincingly whether we are perhaps too hasty in abandoning ourselves to Austen’s assumptions, if the examination of her works requires a more neutral eye. She challenges one of the best novelists and succeeds: an accomplishment, despite the novel’s other shortcomings.
For a devoted Austen aficionado, then, “Longbourn” is perhaps worth reading—it is a task of only a few hours, if one can keep one’s bearings amid the constant changes of voice. But what “Longbourn” achieves could have been encapsulated much more neatly and effectively in a short work of criticism rather than a 330-page novel. Clearly, Jo Baker knows Austen and has thought about her works substantially and creatively. She has simply, through the majority of “Longbourn,” neglected to reflect that knowledge.
—Staff writer Grace E. Huckins can be reached at email@example.com.
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