Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Longbourn," by Jo Baker

Of COURSE no current writer can even touch the hem of Jane Austen’s gown. But writers keep trying to enter Austen’s world, with their prequels, sequels, and alternate versions of her novels. And some of us who love Austen’s novels keep reading these versions, hoping against hope that they will provide a new way to connect to Austen’s original work. They always, it goes without saying, disappoint. But there are degrees of disappointment. I have to say that English novelist Jo Baker’s new novel, “Longbourn” (Knopf, 2013) is a much-better-than-average Austen-related work. As Austen followers well know, Longbourn is the name of the house where the main characters in “Pride and Prejudice” live. The focus of this new novel is on the servants in this house, and their parallel lives during the course of the events described in “Pride and Prejudice.” This is no “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey”; the house is far smaller, and the servants’ lives are much drabber and harder, or at least harder than the portrayals in those two television shows. The novel opens with the housemaid Sarah’s doing the laundry, with all the miserable details of scrubbing and cleaning the clothing for a family with five daughters. “Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household’s linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah. The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this was just the very start of it” (p. 3). We learn of Sarah’s background and dreams, and of those of the other servants: Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the child Polly, and the mysterious Joseph Smith who is taken on as a footman, and who turns out to have a secret prior connection with the household. The Bennet family is generally kind to the servants, if occasionally thoughtless; there is love and support among the servants; and there are some happy events as well. But there is no getting around the drudgery of the work to be done. Meanwhile the events of the Bennets’ lives go on in the background, in this “inside out” version of the story. Interestingly, Elizabeth Bennet is portrayed as less lively and witty, and more worried and sometimes muted, than in the original novel. “Longbourn” is well written, and is a good reminder of the lives of the majority of the English people at the time, those who were not in the upper class. So, unlike in the case of some other Austen-connected novels, I am glad to have read “Longbourn.” But as with those other cases, the final impression we are left with is that no one can hold the proverbial candle to the real thing, the original masterpiece, “Pride and Prejudice.”

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