Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: Longbourn, Jo Baker (2013)

There are two reasons we love retellings of our favourite novels, and they often act in opposition. First, we delight in discovering a new perspective on a familiar story. Second, we wish to recapture the feeling a beloved book gave us on our first reading.

Jo Baker’s 2013 Longbourn, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) from the Bennets’ servants’ viewpoints, falls firmly in the former camp. The usual cast of characters is there—Jane, Lizzie, et al., Darcy and Bingley, the tedious Mr Collins—but they aren’t in the foreground. Instead we follow the inner lives of Sarah, a housemaid, and her fellow servants. For these characters too there is romance, reversal and villainy, but with a hefty dose of realistic drudgery.

Reading Longbourn can make you feel guilty about the questions you didn’t consider before. What will the effects of the house’s entail be on the servants who live and work there? Who must get the mud out of Lizzie’s petticoats? Or the blood out of the sisters’ menstrual rags? There are also darker questions about the source of the Bingleys’ wealth (slave-worked sugar plantations) or Lydia’s relative privilege compared to ‘ruined’ girls without Darcy-level financial backing.

Baker writes great prose. She moves between her point-of-view characters masterfully, giving us access to their emotions with equal doses of empathy and irony. I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of Hertfordshire and the beauty she finds in the mundane, e.g. laundry and dishwashing. Throughout, she’s respectful of her source material, keeping consistent with the events and characterisations in Pride and Prejudice, even where she adds extra colour.

Jo Baker
But if you’re looking to feel as you do when reading Pride and Prejudice, this novel might not satisfy. Longbourn hits some of the notes of the marriage plot on a structural level but, overall, the melody and mood is sadder. Baker’s book isn’t about Austenian wit and charm. It’s an answer to the sanitised escapism of some contemporary historical fiction and much of the Jane Austen fandom. Her ‘hero’, for example, is a former soldier, but not one of the swashbuckling redcoats we know from Meryton. In a section dedicated to him we confront the harsh realities of military combat, a world away from gowns and bonnets and shoe roses.

Longbourn is the best Austen-inspired novel I’ve reviewed in my Neo-Victorian Voices series (see, for instance, my review of Katherine J. Chen’s Mary B). Read it if you’re ready for something new. But if you’re just looking to indulge in nostalgia, reread Pride and Prejudice itself, or curl up in front of the BBC box set.

Which novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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