I must start this book note with a confession:I am not a zealous Jane Austen fan. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy her books. I was captivated by Pride and Prejudice when I read it (for the first time) in my undergraduate days, and I liked Sense and Sensibility perhaps just a little bit more. This might sound strange, as I'm obviously not a wealthy, snobby British man who thinks his wealth makes him better than others, but I totally relate to Mr. Darcy, who I think is a classic misunderstood introvert; if i had to pick a character from classic literature who's most like me, he'd be near the top of my list.
I'm not anti-Austen.
I'm just not rabidly pro-Austen.
I've never read Mansfield Park.
I read Northanger Abbey, but so long ago I only have a faint memory of the general plot.
I absolutely abhor Emma. (That bossy personality, the type that things she knows better than everyone? I can't sit still with it long enough even to enjoy the outcome.)
And my favorite movie version of P&P is the Keira Knightly one (namely because Jennifer Ehle is, in my head, entirely not Elizabeth Bennett and Susannah Harker isn't Jane), even though my favorite Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth. (That spot in the BBC version when he's walking in his boots up from the lake? shivers.) And yes, I know, that ending!, and the slightly rushed feel, and seriously, why didn't they just get Colin Firth again, etc. I still love it most.
It's a truth universally known, though, that English majors are supposed to love Jane Austen, right? Which is why this feels like a confession.
Except, I'm actually fairly comfortable with my middling emotions for Jane Austen.
They make it so I've actually only read part of one Jane-Austen-fan-girl book, Austenland. I got partway through it and I found myself thinking apologies, Shannon Hale, because while I love Goose Girl and I adore Enna Burning, this Jane Austen thing is just not working for me. I can't relate.
Any Jane Austen spin offs or homages have (mostly) been ignored by me. (I did thoroughly enjoy For Darkness Shows the Stars, however, which is a post-apocalyptic retelling of Persuasion.)
So I have to sort of explain why I wanted to read Longbourn, which tells the story of the largely-invisible servants in Pride and Prejudice. It wasn't really its connection to P&P, but its time period and my affinity for non-wealthy protagonists. (An affinity that Jane Austen, of course, decidedly did not share.) Probably I like books like Longbourn because they make me feel like A Little Princess did when I was a child, or at least the parts of it when Sara was a maid: startled out of my comfortable position by the suffering of a literary character from long, long ago.
The character in Longbourn is another Sarah, the housemaid. Her job is laundry, mostly, and cleaning, and helping to cook, and running to Meryton to fetch silk flowers for the Bennett girls' dancing shoes. Curling their hair, helping them dress, waiting up with a candle for them after balls. But Lizzie, Jane et al are only minor characters on the fringes of Sarah's life—the people who create a sort of misery for her (blithely handing her their chamber pots), but not the point.
An orphan with only a few vague, sweet memories of her parents, Sarah has lived at Longbourn since she was fairly young, when Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, adopted her from the poorhouse. A few years later, they brought another housemaid, Polly, to help as well. Along with Mr. Hill, the butler, they keep Longbourn running as smoothly as possible. Then Mr. Bennett hires a man named James to serve as a manservant (apparently a very fashionable thing to have in Napoleonic England, as men not occupied with war were scarce), and sparks, of a sort, fly.
For a bit of the book, my non-fangirl self got a little bit worried, because it seemed like the story would follow an Austen-esque curve, a young woman misunderstanding the men around her and then the way it all settles out in the end. But while it threatened, it didn't actually do that. It went in a sort of earthier way, romance-wise, than anything afforded to a woman of upper class breeding. Then it took an entirely unexpected turn, in the form of a long flashback about one of the character's war experiences. (In this sense, it reminded me most of Atonement, although they're mostly nothing alike.)
I enjoyed seeing the familiar arc of P&P—not just the story, but the setting and the characters—from a different perspective. Lizzie's trip to London, for example, has an entirely different meaning for Sarah. We also get to see a bit of Lizzie settled down in Pemberley, and a glimpse of married Mr. Darcy. Mrs. Bennett, behind doors, is more likeable; Mr. Wickham much more wicked. The Bingleys' servants are worked into the story as well.
But what I liked best were the parts where Sarah's story was just her own: connected to the Bennetts' lives because she worked and cared for them, but not the shaping force of her life. Sarah is an interesting character all on her own; she is mostly trapped by her life's circumstances, but she still wants more than just being a housemaid for her entire life. We also learn James's story, and the Hills', and a little bit of Polly's. We see an entirely different perspective of the time period, one with its own set of rules and manners, much more harsh and brutal than the Bennetts' world but somehow more vivid for its misery and hardship.
So! Even if you are, like me, not a fervent Austen fan, but like her work well enough, or if you enjoy historical fiction, or romance that feels authentic and believable, I think you'll like Longbourn. Of course, if you are an ardent Austen fan, you might not like it. You might even hate it, as you'll get a glimpse of the Bennetts' dirty laundry, both literally and figuratively. And if you love adaptations of Austen's work—the kind that further the characters' stories with more gentle, fluffy, wealthy-adoring plot lines—you'll very likely not love Longbourn. It is a rougher, more violent and sensual story. But it might just give you a different perspective on P&P if you'll try it.