Sunday, September 28, 2014

More than Just a New Perspective: Jo Baker's Longbourn

In the interest of full disclosure, a confession: I love Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceI loved it when I read it for the first time in fifth grade, I loved it even more when I understood it more fully in high school, and that love only grew deeper during re-readings in college and afterwards when I could reflect more consciously on the gender and class dynamics that the original novel depicts. And I will defend the novel, on literary and social grounds, before all comers. It is, for one, set in a remarkable context – the family at the center of the novel are not members of the 1%, where most of the novels of the period take place, but members of the 15% where the pressures from below and above are most keenly felt. Every devotee of Pride and Prejudice will tell you that it is Elizabeth Bennet who is the heroine of the story, despite the fact that the narratives of her older sister (Jane) and younger sister (Lydia) both follow the more standard trajectory of romantic and moral narratives. But the reason I, and generations of other women, love Elizabeth Bennet is because she is capable of saying ‘no’: without blushing, and without prevaricating, she is a wholly feminine, intelligent woman who has no qualms about refusing the narrative that has been laid out for her. And while her opposite number, Darcy, begins the book as a rude misogynist, he too is worthy of continuing affection, if only because he is a man who respects (or at least, learns to respect) a woman who says ‘no.’

Because I love Pride and Prejudice, I am wary of adaptations and spin-offs. I enjoyed the two most famous movie adaptations of the novel (1940 and 2005), and Melissa Nathan’s modern and layered retelling in Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field (HarperCollins, 2001). But I have not read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 2009), and I feel no great urgency to do so. I’m sure it is, on its own terms, a remarkable book, but I have no particular desire to remake the world of the original. And this is the distinction for me between good and bad sequels or adaptations: does they break the original? Or do they widen the readers’ perspective on the original without resorting to interventions that undermine Austen’s text? It is in stretching the world of Pride and Prejudice without breaking it, in preserving the original in the service of creating something genuinely new, that Jo Baker's Longbourn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) excels.

For the three people in the English-speaking world who don’t know, Longbourn is the name of the family estate of the Bennets, the protagonists of Pride and Prejudice. The vast majority of the action in Pride and Prejudice takes place at Longbourn: it is where we meet the family, where we meet their romantic interests, and where the majority of the most joyful and tragic moments of the plot take place. It is from a window of Longbourn that Jane first sees Bingley; it is where the family gathers to mourn the tragedy of Lydia; it is in the gardens of Longbourn that Elizabeth confronts Lady Catherine; and in fact, it is the status of Longbourn as an entailed estate that motivates a great deal of the drama. But in Longbourn, Jo Baker has zeroed in on something peculiar about Longbourn: its passivity. Longbourn the estate is a beautiful place, where the Bennets enjoy formal and informal family dinners, dress for parties, entertain guests, and stroll the manicured grounds – but the reader never learns how the grounds are manicured, how the party dresses are made ready, or who cooks the meals. Longbourn the novel tells us all these things, but it is also much more than that.

From the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice: an idyllic view of the Bennet sisters, with not a servant to be seen

On the surface, Longbourn is a novel about the ‘below stairs’ world of Longbourn; think of the kitchen in Downton Abbey, only with a bare population and infinitely smaller budget. Drawing on the (very few) mentions of servants in Pride and Prejudice, Baker populates the kitchen, scullery, stables and fields of Longbourn. Now, this format has been done before: the novelist makes the invisible voices and people heard. And there are a couple of pitfalls that novels of this sort often fall into.

The first is to make the ‘new’ characters simply windows onto the original characters; that is to say, the scullery maid and the cook are wholly occupied with the original protagonists (I’m thinking here of the literary realms of Jasper Ffords' The Eyre Affair, where all of the secondary characters are concerned only with advancing and supporting the narrative of the leads). But Baker’s characters are people in themselves, and perhaps the most remarkable feature of this book is that the real story is NOT about Jane, Elizabeth, or Lydia Bennet, or any of the other Bennets. It is about Mrs. Hill, James, Polly, Sarah, and their stories; though inevitably impacted and in some ways determined by the goings-on upstairs, these remain their own stories. They have their own dreams and their own desires, their own sadnesses and pleasures, and the fact that their ability to be fulfilled is often dependent on the family upstairs that is largely oblivious to their individuality and agency is only a part of the story.

But of course, the draw of a book like this to disciples of Pride and Prejudice is precisely in the fact that it opens up another dimension on the novel that we already love, and this is where the author must make another decision: was the original author a liar or not? In other words, if we look at the characters from another perspective, is our heroine really heroic? Are the deserving really deserving? Or is their appearance as deserving and strong just predicated on their (and our) blindness to those whose service makes their triumph possible?

 Author Jo Baker (Photo: Camera Press / Ed Marshall)
What is remarkable about Baker’s Longbourn is not just the independence and individuality of her own characters; it is the degree to which she manages to echo the main characters of Pride and Prejudice, to extend their characterization by Austen without breaking it. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet may be the two Austen characters that are most thoroughly enhanced by Baker. After all, what does it mean for a woman to have given birth to five children in this period? And what else might Mr. Bennet, whose loving carelessness for his family is so delicately portrayed by Austen, get up to in the library in which he so often takes refuge in Pride and Prejudice? Without providing any spoilers, Baker’s sharp eye makes these characters, already fallible and ambiguous in Austen, all the more problematic. (And for those who know the novel and have always bristled at Wickham’s seduction of the young Georgiana Darcy and 16-year-old Lydia, it is safe to say that her extension of the character of Wickham is breathtakingly appropriate).

On another level, Baker’s Longbourn recalls us to the real world in which the original novel takes place, and the consequences of the behavior of those who live above-stairs. Elizabeth’s famous trek through the mud to nurse her sister means extra hours spent by the housemaid washing her petticoats with hands chapped and bleeding from the lye used to bleach the mud away, and the fact that Longbourn is entailed to a distant cousin has direct effects on the servant population of the estate. Not to mention the fact that a house with six adult women naturally produces an enormous and disconcerting amount of bloodied laundry at least once a month, something that this reader at least had never considered! And Baker’s book reminds us that the plethora of uniformed officers with whom Kitty and Lydia flirt so prodigiously is the result of the ongoing Napoleonic wars, wars in which ten of thousands of men died and even more had to survive a brutal and still (to modern eyes) archaic British campaign and administrative structure.

Technically, Longbourn is a masterpiece. Baker has carefully mapped out the trajectory of Pride and Prejudice, and – as she notes in her epilogue – the goings-on below-stairs faithfully reflect affairs above-stairs: when there is a dinner in Pride and Prejudice, dinner must be cooked in Longbourn; and when there is a dance in Pride and Prejudice it is Sarah of Longbourn who must assist the daughters in their preparation. This is Baker’s third novel, and if it is in any way an indication of her oeuvre, her two previous works, and the two novels that are currently in the works, are must-reads.

Longbourn will remain with you not because of what it suggests about Mrs. Bennet but because Sarah herself is a remarkable woman, a woman who, like Elizabeth Bennet, can say ‘no.’ It will remain with you because of what Sarah overcomes, because of the empathy and pain of Mrs. Hill and the remarkable strengths and weaknesses of James Smith. The frame provided by Pride and Prejudice is indeed delightful, but Longbourn does not need it; Baker has created a world of her own devising here, and it is one which is very worth the reader’s time and attention.

Longbourn is available from most major bookstores and as an e-book on Amazon and Indigo.

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.