Thursday, January 11, 2018

Longbourn by Jo Baker (2013)

I am not a Jane Austen stan.  I have read Pride & Prejudice one time, I've seen the Colin Firth as Darcy, Saffy from Ab Fab as Lydia, and Cicero from HBO's Rome  as Mr. Collins version one time, and watched the Keira Knightley movie once. I've seen Sense & Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant at least one time too.   I've also seen about three minutes of the movie version of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.  I watched a BBC doc with the inestimable Lucy Worsley that was about Jane Austen - but you know what:  I don't  remember a thing about it.   Now you know my exact relationship to Jane Austen (to be completely honest, I sometimes mix up the Austens and the Brontes, which makes me a terrible, terrible English major). 

 I didn't realize that Longbourn was an adaptation - of sorts - of Pride & Prejudice until I started reading it.  This is a full disclosure type of blog post - I put Longbourn on my reading list originally because I saw a poster at a library that showed a list of books that were similar to Downton Abbey.  I may or may not have still been watching Downton Abbey at that time (we never watched the last seasons) but I knew I liked reading Upstairs Downstairs types of books.  When I listed the book, I probably knew it was about the Bennets' servants - Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, her husband, Sarah and Polly the maids, and James Smith, the mysterious new footman.  But I promptly forgot all about that until I picked it up.

Initially, I wasn't impressed, and found it hard going.  I remembered only the barest details (that everyone with a bit of cultural literacy knows) from Pride & Prejudice - character names, their relationships to one another, the neighbors.  Characters kept appearing that would spark in my memory (Lady Catherine de Burgh - oh yeah!) but I couldn't always remember what they actually did or didn't do in the book.  I completely forgot about one sister (Kitty?  Who was the fuck was Kitty in the movies?).  I have no idea what parties or balls or dinners or whatever they attended in the book. The author carefully matched up whatever the Bennet girls were doing - attending a dinner at the Bingleys', for example - with what their servants had to go through to make that happen.   But because I wasn't all that familiar with source material, the sense of wonder someone who was familiar and who was reading the book escaped me. 

 At some point, I put that all aside, and just decided to read the book without thinking all that much about Pride & Prejudice - because I started to enjoy it, and wonder what was going to happen to the main characters.  The Bennets and other characters from Pride & Prejudice are really ghosts in this book, flitting in and out of rooms and scenes, to cause chaos of various sorts.  Some prior knowledge of Pride & Prejudice is probably necessary, but you don't have to be an expert to enjoy the book.  (knowing that Pride marries Prejudice at the end, though - that helps; Jane marrying Bingley; Lydia running away with the vile Wyckham (he's terrible in this book, beyond creepy - all of this helps). 

Jo Baker really brought home the dismal, backbreaking, and disgusting work of the servant class of the 19th century:  the chillblains, and cleaning sanitary napkins and dirty diapers, the backbreaking work, the capriciousness of the ruling class towards their servants.  While not exactly slaves, the Bennet servants often seem that way. 

There are a couple of truly wonderful plot twists that made me even love the book more.  I'm sure everyone else who read this book saw these less as "twists" and more of bits of obvious plotting, but I for one was completely and pleasantly bowled over.  I like it when books can do that, and this brought my esteem of this book up even more. 


LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not an Austen stan. Sometimes, I even mix up the Brontes and the Austens. I now that makes me anathema. But I have read (and watched) Pride and Prejudice, once (for each), and that was enough to make Jo Baker's book really quite enjoyable. I didn't quite realize that the book was an adaptation (of sorts) - Pride and Prejudice from the servant's viewpoint (sort of). That could have made it terrible, but the servants are all injected with the life and energy that Jane Austen herself left out of them when she wrote the into being 200 years or so ago. Jo Baker gave them names and backstories and drama (but not soap opera drama). She also reminded us again and again how awful, how literally shitty (washing baby diapers by hand and slipping and falling into pig shit are just two examples) the lives of servants were in the 19th century. All those tea parties and Regency balls took a lot of work, struggle, pain, chilblained hands, aching backs by men and women whose last names weren't Bennet or Bingley, or didn't have Lady in front of their name. There are a couple of truly wonderful plot twists that made me even love the book more. I'm sure everyone else who read this book saw these less as "twists" and more of bits of obvious plotting, but I for one was completely and pleasantly bowled over. I like it when books can do that, and this brought my esteem of this book up even more.


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