A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Never say never, eh? Just a few years ago I was railing here during one of our Hatchet Job Weeks about my distaste for Jane Austen spin-offs. Well, I did dig myself an escape tunnel by saying that I do love clever re-imagining of Jane Austen’s themes and her world, which is handy because I’ve just read Jo Baker’s Longbourn, I think it is wonderful, and gladly add this to the list.
The premise for Longbourn is of course the house at the heart of Pride and Prejudice. The major characters here are the servants, whose loyalty and drudgery make the life of the Bennet family easy and pleasant (insofar as it is), and for whom Longbourn is just as much home as it is for its owners. One of the preoccupations of the original novel is how precarious life is for the Bennet family – the estate is entailed, mother and daughters could be homeless at any time. This is also the reality for any servant at the time, all the time, only it is a matter of pleasing the family, trying never to put a foot wrong, always aiming to give satisfaction. But it is a delicate ecology: the smoothness of household life is a product of loyal servants and their skill and hard work, so there is a compelling interdependence. At the beginning of the novel, the hard work of just four people ensures the Bennets’ comfort, and each one of them knows something of the family’s intimate secrets, if only through keeping their rooms clean and tidy and doing their laundry. When it comes to the housekeeper, Mrs Hill, she knows and sees everything.
The protagonist is the maid-of-all-work Sarah, who with the girl Polly and Mr and Mrs Hill, housekeeper and butler/coachman between them keep Longbourn comfortable and hospitable. She is intelligent and ambitious, and totally dependent on her good standing in Longbourn to survive. The latest arrival below stairs is the mysterious incomer James Smith, an able young man, strong, personable enough to serve at table, good with horses – almost too good to be true that such a paragon of a servant should be available to a household like Longbourn.
This novel is a joy to read, whether you have read Pride and Prejudice once, or like me more times than you care to count, or never read it at all. The characters have their own voice and inner thoughts. The description of their lives and preoccupations is sharp and elegant, and deeply perceptive. I remember a long time ago reading a (non-fiction) account of the lives of housemaids, and have never lost the vivid picture in my mind’s eye of the pain and tears caused by washing dishes and laundry in soda solution, with cracked and chapped hands. Longbourn does not flinch from recreating this world. It also picks up and develops a hint dropped in the latest film version of Pride and Prejudice (2005) that Longbourn is actually quite ramshackle, with the farm lapping the margins of the house, filth and mud just about being kept at bay. Huzzah for the death of the National Trustification of Jane Austen!
My reaction to Longbourn is that of a reader of Pride and Prejudice possibly at least once a year since I was 15 – and yet I must go back and read it again, as there are so many clues and lines of enquiry to follow. Jo Baker has taken these clues and woven a whole parallel world from them, peopled with those who have their own story to tell that is just as compelling as that of Jane and Elizabeth. Longbourn is deliciously subversive for a Janeite – the perfect Miss Elizabeth with her habit of country walks in all weathers: how does Sarah feel when she has to launder the mud six inches deep from her petticoats? As far as Sarah is concerned Elizabeth is what people call witty, but we are give the strong impression that all that sparkle is turned outwards, and not much of it heads towards Sarah. Mr Bennet – sardonic yet tolerant and humorous, the best company for the reader of the novel – well, what lies unspoken in his life story is vital in Longbourn. And as far as Mrs Bennet goes, this is possibly one of the best literary rehabilitation jobs since Wide Sargasso Sea, movingly understanding of her life story, her preoccupations and habits. The trajectory of the family is examined here with perception and humanity, why there seem to be two completely different sets of daughters – the two cherished elder ones who would precede the son and heir, and the neglected younger ones, children of fading hopes, in comparison unwelcome and unwanted. So many more clues are picked up from the original, and there are plausible theories on the underpinnings of other households – Netherfield, with its nouveau riche owner for instance, and his articulate and ambitious young Barbadian footman Ptolemy. Slavery and growing abolitionist ideas are never far from the surface.
There is a strong love story running through Longbourn, and it is Sarah’s. It leads to scenes of adventure and jeopardy that I thought at first would detract from the delicate yet keen observation of the book – it caused it to spin away from the parallel track to Pride and Prejudice that I was enjoying so very much. But that was me, writing in my head the novel I wanted to read at first, until I was captivated by the idea that Sarah and her fellow servants deserved their stories to be told too.
So, I am still prejudiced (I admit) against sequels, prequels and spin-offs, but Longbourn has slipped behind my mental block, and joined Clueless among other brilliant re-imaginings as a pleasure for this Janeite. This review is written from a point of view of a reader who is steeped in the love and re-reading of Jane Austen’s novels, and I would love to hear from those who come to Longbourn without any particular knowledge of or love for Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Austen in general. If you do not enjoy her work, this could well be a refreshing antidote. I am sure that it stands up, but I am not in a position to know, and should love some opinions on this.
Jo Baker: Longbourn. Paperback. London: Transworld Publishing (Black Swan), 2014. 448pp
ISBN 13: 9780552779517
Also available in ebook formats.