Tracing Jane: Longbourn – Jane Austen Book Reviews
Tracing Jane: Nearly two hundred years after her works were first published, Jane Austen not only continues to appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds, but also inspires writers and artists in different genres and media. This rubric will trace Austen’s work into the twenty-first century and investigate the fascinations, imaginations and, perhaps, annoyances which led these different artists to put their own spin on her classic novels.
From Lost in Austen to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the story of Pride and Prejudice has been reimagined by modern writers countless times, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. Whilst fan fiction can be lots of fun, both for the writer and the reader, some readers may be excused for wondering whether these endless rewritings are really necessary – particularly with this much-loved novel, which does not need improving on.
There is certainly a place in the P&P canon for Longbourn by Jo Baker, however. The novel, published this year to high critical acclaim, is a retelling of Jane Austen’s classic through the eyes of the domestic staff at the Bennets’ family home.
Precise research sets the scene in the same Georgian provincial community we know so well from Jane Austen’s novels, but highlights a reality that is easily forgotten in the elegance conveyed by Jane Austen’s writing. Taking her reader into the kitchen in which the Bennet girls had ‘nothing to do’, Baker conveys the heat, smell and clatter required to prop up the lifestyle of a Georgian novel heroine. Following the young housemaid Sarah, she describes in passing how pig fat is boiled up for soap, and how much trouble it takes to get the mud stains out of Lizzy’s petticoat.
The novel’s strength lies primarily in its awareness of the practicalities of day-to-day Georgian life. Lines from the original locate the events very precisely within those of Pride and Prejudice, and reveal the work and worries attendant on Mr Collins’s visit, Lydia’s departure to Brighton, and the marriage of Elizabeth. By focusing on the people that are made virtually invisible in the structure of the original text, Baker explores a different side of the characters Jane Austen readers know and love.
Lizzy and Jane’s careless kindnesses and equally careless selfishness to a housemaid whose situation they cannot understand and have never dreamt of trying to understand, Lydia’s over-familiarity, Mrs Bennet’s propensity to absorb her housekeeper’s time while the bread spoils downstairs, and, especially poignantly, Mr Bennet’s passive-aggressive cruelties towards the loyal Mrs Hill, are all thoroughly believable, and make the reader face up to some unpleasant likelihoods about the beloved characters – and even about their author.
Its weakness, I felt, lies in the plot of the second and third volumes, which, although it shows Baker very aware of the wider politics which Jane Austen rarely deals with head-on, has a tendency towards melodrama. The beauty of Jane Austen’s work is in her perfect awareness of her own limitations, which made her keep to the very limited sphere she knew and convey it with such accuracy and humour. Baker’s excursions into the Peninsular War and its aftermath are interesting and their impact on the James, the footman at Longbourn, largely believable, but especially the male characters’ interaction and dialogue at these points is often overblown. Furthermore, the trauma and danger to the character set up in these chapters, which informs much of the first and last thirds of the novel, seems to evaporate at the end of the text along with previous concerns about work and money during a time of financial crisis, to facilitate a too-neat ending.
Nevertheless, Longbourn is a touch above the vast majority of P&P reimaginings: the prose flows beautifully, the historical setting is seamlessly constructed on solid research, and the narrative and characters are engaging with flashes of real insight into human interrelationships of the period. If Baker has, perhaps, tried to encompass a bit too much in her ambitious text, her skill as a writer and the conscientiousness of her research do compensate enough to make this a very enjoyable novel.
Longbourn by Jo Baker is published by Black Swan, and is priced at £7.99 in the UK.
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