Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Sunday Book: Longbourn

I am a Janeite to my core. Where other people may have core muscles I have a deep and abiding love of Austen. Of course, this explains why it took me about four days to recover from climbing on Saturday – core muscles are useful for many things, posture and upper body strength included. Although Austen is useful for life and now I’m not sure where I’m going with this…

I think the jist of it was; I love Austen a lot. She is a writer of exquisite detail, precision and observation. Her novels are works of art in the truest sense and I will never tire of returning to them and to her remarkable insight into the human condition. Emma may be the most perfect book ever written. So funny, sharp and truthful. I will watch every TV and film adaptation ever made because even when they’re shoddy or they stray from the original and are only the faintest echo of her genius they are often still touched with glory.

Hypocritically, I don’t feel the same way about the recent spate of book adaptations. Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters is a great title and a fun idea but I don’t want to read it. Ditto, Val McDermid’s new Northanger Abbey or Mrs. Darcy’s Sexy Times/whatever it is called. I really enjoyed the BBC Christmas adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley – Anna Maxwell  Martin is a goddess and Matthew Goode is a mega babe – but I don’t feel any great inclination to read the book.

This is to say that, although Longbourn had crossed my path rather vaguely I hadn’t paid much attention, novelistic romps through P&P tending towards the bawdy and uninspired. But how the mighty fall and great minds change. I read a strong review somewhere I have since forgotten, a copy was pressed upon me by my mother, whose tastes are (largely) excellent, and I had a strong Regency craving. So I gave it a shot, with fairly low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised. This is not trashy and it is a legitimately refreshing fictional take on Austen. It didn't throw new light on Austen’s work for me (I have studied her too enthusiastically for that) but it was an emotive reminder of a perspective on her work that I often overlook when I'm reading for pleasure.

Longbourn is the servant’s story of P&P. Jo Baker uses the fixed points of the upstairs narrative to spin a downstairs story. She takes a quote from the original novel as the header to each chapter and extrapolates from there. Nothing in her story contradicts the original novel which just goes to show how little detail is included about those other people sharing a house with the Bennets. Austen left an enormous imaginative space within her jewel-like world for the smart author to play in and Baker clearly had a ball. She explores many of the social issues that sit just outside Austen’s vision – the war with Spain, race and the slave trade, illegitimacy and the reality of extreme poverty. Austen alludes to the war, slavery sits at the edge of Mansfield Park and Harriet Smith is the natural daughter of nobody knows who but the author has other concerns.

Austen’s novels are all about class and money, the fragility of status and the very real threats to the livelihoods of women balanced on the edge of the (mostly) middle class. No one is a more acute observer of class, its niceties and its cruelties, and Jane Fairfax is in a dire situation; the Bennet daughters are at risk of losing their way of life. I don’t judge/criticise her perspective. But… she is looking at a very specific cross section of society and experience and there is a world beyond that. Baker brings that world to life in an engaging way.

Admittedly, beyond the politics and perspective, Longbourn isn’t especially innovative. Baker isn’t changing the very fabric of story-telling or exploding the form here – this is a pretty traditional plot and structure. Beginning, middle and end; romance, obstacles and all that. But that’s fine and it’s an enjoyable read. Mostly though it is a lovely, non-clich├ęd opportunity to immerse yourself in Austen’s world and explore her margins and for established fans that is a delight.


  1. I agree - Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was not so good, unfortunately. And don't watch Austenland. For the love of God, don't watch it