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Book Review: Longbourn

By (October 10, 2013) No Comment

Longbournelongbourn in color
by Jo Baker
Knopf, 2013

The casual reader of Jane Austen pastiche-fiction – a Barnes & Noble table-browser who was momentarily amused by the cover of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for instance – can have no conception of the sheer extent of the phenomenon. Even readers who regularly indulge in things like Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife or Pemberley Manor would be shocked at the amount of what remains, especially when the radioactive particle-field of online self-publishing is taken into account. On Fanfiction.net – only one fan fiction site among many – Pride and Prejudice has so far generated over thirty thousand stories, with no end in sight. It’s a reaction of such staggering proportions that it naturally invites speculation; it doesn’t exactly happen with every early 19th Century author, after all.

The speculation is easy: we’re all at home in Longbourn, the modest stately home of the Bennet family in Meryton. We know the five Bennet girls – impressionable Kitty, pompous Mary, flirtatious Lydia, saintly Jane, and of course glorious Elizabeth – as though they were our own sisters. We warm to kindly, sarcastic Mr. Bennet as he retreats to his library. We roll our eyes at Mrs. Bennet’s hysterics because we’ve all had mothers who on occasion spoke before they thought. We live through the scandal of Lydia’s elopement and the double joy of Jane’s and Elizabeth’s happy engagements. Something in the book’s strange pacing and alchemy (amply aided by several popular movie and TV adaptations), some conviction of its many structural disproportions, makes it seem real to us in a way that Mrs. Gaskell’s more perfect orders cannot. It’s little wonder that readers and writers seek to return the favor.

But it gets mighty tiresome, mighty fast. There’s scarcely ever been a Pride and Prejudice pastiche that was worth reading, and always the fault is the same: they make Jane Austen do most of the heavy lifting. This isn’t Twilight or Harry Potter, where almost any fan fiction – regardless of the age or IQ or native language of the author – will be better-written than the original; a close-tone vamping of Pride and Prejudice quickly and inevitably prompts the reader to ask, “Why am I reading this garbage when I can just read Pride and Prejudice again?” Hence the infinite, desperate variations of fan fiction (sea monsters, aliens, Darcy and Bingley as a power couple, etc.).

At first glance, Jo Baker’s new novel Longbourn looks like the most crassly calculating of such desperate variations: it’s the story of the servants at the Bennet family home, living their invisible lives below-stairs while the old familiar P&P plot unfolds in the background. It is, in the hook-speak of Hollywood, “Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey.” In other words, it should be insufferable.

Instead, it’s suffusingly good, the sharpest and most intelligent historical novel of the year. It takes readers into the world of Longbourn’s serving men and women, especially the seasoned and likeable maid Sarah and the enigmatic new footman James Smith, who quickly form an against-odds attachment to each other, although in a well-done parallel with Elizabeth and Darcy, at first neither will admit to it. Sarah initially considers James infuriatingly awkward, and even after he’s begun to feel protective of her, he’s still rationalizing his feelings on the basis of how detached Longbourn seems from the harsh life he’s known:

He had been concerned for her; that was all. No one here seemed to have any real notion of the world. This was innocence as deep and dangerous as a quarry-pit. He, though, he knew. He knew that men were capable of many things, and had come to believe, indeed, that some men were not really men at all, for all that they walked and talked and prayed and ate and slept and dressed themselves like men. Give them just time and opportunity enough, and they’d reveal themselves to be cold creatures with strange appetites, who did not care what harm they did in satisfying them.

This bleakly-realized larger reality is the stony back-wall of the entire book; when Smith briefly disappears, the house’s head serving-woman, Mrs Hill, has no illusions about the grace that watches over the sparrow:

She climbed a stile, and sank down in the lee of a hedge. There was wood sorrel growing on the bank, and harebells, and there were cowbells nodding in the meadow grass at her feet, and a young cow ambled over, head swinging low, considering her with a bulging eye. It blinked its long lashes, and licked its nose with a rasping sticky tongue.

Wherever you are, Mrs Hill thought, God watches over you. He just looks on at you, with a strange eye and an uncaring heart.

The Bennets themselves cannot come out well from such a change in perspective, and it’s a mark of how effectively Baker works our sympathies into her downstairs world that we almost want to slip a quick word of warning to our beloved Bennets to be on their best behavior, to somehow suddenly be more forgiving, more attentive, more thoughtful than any of their Regency counterparts among the gracious-living set. But at every turn they fail us. When Smith goes missing, Sarah gently suggests that perhaps Elizabeth ask about him in Brighton via letter – and our dear Lizzie, without once stepping out of character, makes us wince in a way she never has before:

Elizabeth frowned, half shook her head. ‘I’m sorry. Of whom?’

‘Mr Smith. You must remember him?’

Elizabeth’s eyebrows crept up; Sarah had moved closer, her hand was reaching out: she had forgot herself. She remembered now, and brought her hand back to clasp the other.

‘I am sorry, miss. I really am, but he was here just a little while ago, and so much in our lives. A fine young man, your father said so. Everybody said so. A find, upstanding young man.’

Elizabeth’s expression cleared. ‘Oh! Smith! You mean the footman!’

‘Yes.’

‘You called him Mr Smith, that’s why I misunderstood you; I thought you meant someone of my acquaintance. I thought you meant a gentleman.’

‘I am sorry I was unclear.’

This is the most prominent strength of Longbourn, as often unwanted by the long-time Austen fan as it is welcome by them: the more Baker’s readers know and care about her working-class characters, the more aware those readers are of how little anybody in Pride and Prejudice knows or cares about those same characters. When I first started reading Longbourn, I mentally scrambled to recall anything about the servants in Pride and Prejudice, and when I realized I’d scarcely ever noticed them as anything more than moving parts of the novel’s furniture, I realized too that this wasn’t because Jane Austen wanted to portray them that way – it was because she never thought not to. They were as invisible to her as she had made them to me.

That shock alone makes Longbourn a mighty gift. But there would be ample elegance and beauty to this novel even if we’d never heard of the family for whom Baker’s characters work unceasingly. The fact that we know and love the Bennets makes their obliviousness inescapable; we love them a little less when Jo Baker is done with them, but we know them much better – and ourselves a little better too.

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