Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn is a down-at-the-heels understaffed house in 19th century England, where you are more likely to get pigshit on your shoes than to meet a nobleman. The fact that Longbourn is the home of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice is hardly mentioned, and the few Bennet family members who do appear in the book do so peripherally and mostly unsympathetically. Instead, this book focuses on the Longbourn servants, especially Sarah the housemaid, and James, the footman.

Usually I avoid the Jane Austen extended universe: the sequels and prequels, the mashups, the secret diaries, the mysteries, and the modern-day retelllings. But I was interested in Longbourn because it focused on the servants, and not on the traditional cast of P&P. It also was clearly NOT a romance. I like my historical fiction with some grit and it sounded like this book had it.

An orphan taken in by the Bennet family housekeeper, Sarah works grueling hours in harsh circumstances. Baker makes sure we know about Sarah’s painful chilblains, her ill-fitting boots, and what time she gets up to lay the fires every day. Baker also introduces the rest of the servants, who, like all good literary characters, have secrets and agendas of their own. Both Sarah and James dream of better lives but the societal and economic restrictions they face limit their choices. James has also spent time in the army and Baker revisits his years fighting in Spain, a section of the book I read with increasing horror but which ultimately adds to the novel’s depth.

I loved the way Baker was able to use some of the plot elements from Pride and Prejudice to her own different effect. P&P readers will remember that Longbourn is entailed; it can only be inherited by a male relative, Mr. Collins, a distant cousin of the Bennet girls. This uncertainty, far from being confined to the Bennet family, drives action in the servants’ hall as well, as the housekeeper worries that the new heir will want to replace the existing staff with all new people, as would be his right. Her very real fears that she and her elderly husband could be cast adrift, just as they are too old to find new positions, keep her awake at night and scrambling to impress Mr. Collins when he visits Longbourn. I enjoyed revisiting these familiar situations from a different angle, but readers who don’t remember every detail of P&P will have no trouble getting the point.

Let’s talk about repurposing these characters and plot elements some more, shall we? Is Longbourn fanfiction? If not, why not? Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, by Ann Jamison. Next week I’ll write a blog post about that, and how it relates to Longbourn.

I’m also moderately interested in a batch of new additions to the Austen extended universe—The Austen Project. HarperCollins has commissioned six bestselling contemporary authors to write modern retellings of Austen’s six full-length novels. What attracts me to this project is the authors themselves. I skipped the first release, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, but I’m planning to read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, whose crime writing is just so fierce, and I’m also interested in Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice, which comes out this fall. The literary press has been lukewarm about The Austen Project. I especially can’t figure out this review from the Guardian,  where Robert McCrum seems to be saying that McDermid did a good job with Northanger Abbey, despite the thanklessness of the task. McCrum says that publishers should focus on finding the next Jane Austen or Val McDermid instead of selling re-treads (his words). On one hand I agree with him, but as a fan of (some) fanfiction, I am starting to see the other side—that the reading public’s desire to continue to engage with these characters and stories challenges publishers to meet this need.

(Book 11, 2014)

3 comments:

herschelian said...

I enjoyed Longbourn for the same reasons you did. Not normally a fan of prequels or sequels (with some honourable exceptions viz 'The Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys), this book can stand alone even if you have never read any of Jane Austen's writing.

I am grateful to you for educating me - I had never heard the term 'Fanfiction' and am now going to read the Ann Jamieson book you mention.

For some years I have been banging on about how irritated I get when Hollywood remakes a successful old movie, or takes a foreign film and gives it the whole US/Hollywood treatment. My son who is something of a movie buff is much amused by me -'honestly Mum, don't get your knickers in a twist, a good story is always worth re-telling, think of Cinderella..'
Maybe the same applies to good books, Hmm, I'm not convinced.

Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

Sounds interesting and I pretty much agree with you on everything. I also thought of Sargasso Sea and how stories can have different sides depending on who's doing the telling. And I loved the films Clueless and Everafter (which is a Cinderella retelling). But I am pretty bored by Hollywoods tendency to do endless remakes.

st said...

I'm looking forward to the Sittenfeld version too but a recent article states it's due in "2015 or 2016."

Here's the link:
http://www.mtexpress.com/index2.php?ID=2007152928#.U9TyzqPG-a8

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