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Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Novel I’ll Be Re-Reading For Years to Come

One of my favorite meadows near home

Months ago a friend recommended that I read Longbourn, by Jo Baker, but summer is a busy time, and books and weeks fly by at a dizzying pace, so I didn’t pick up the book that had been waiting patiently for me until a few days ago. That’s all it took—picking it up and reading the first page. I was hooked.

The main character, Sarah, is a maid in the Bennet household, that family of five daughters famous among English-language readers for 200 years from Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Hill and her husband run the house with the help of maids Sarah and young Polly, and as Polly, only about 12 years old, has a hard time waking up early, it falls to the more responsible Sarah to rise in the dark on washday and go out into the cold morning to begin the hardest day of the week.
The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilbains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this just the very start of it.  
All else was stillness. Sheep huddled in drifts on the hillside; birds in the hedgerows were fluffed like thistledown; in the woods, fallen leaves rustled with the passage of a hedgehog; the stream caught starlight and glistened over rocks, Below, in the barn, cows huffed clouds of sweet breath, and in the sty, the sow twitched, her piglets bundled at her belly. Mrs. Hill and her husband, up high in their tiny attic, slept the black blank sleep of deep fatigue; two floors below, in the principal bedchamber, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were a pair of churchyard humps under the counterpane. The young ladies, all five of them sleeping in their beds, were dreaming of whatever it was that young ladies dream.
From Austen’s book we already know Longbourn (the house) and the Bennet family and their neighborhood and the nearby town of Meryton, the relatives and the officers and dozens of letters exchanged by the gentlefolk. We’ve made a visit of several weeks with Elizabeth when she goes to stay with Charlotte Lucas at the parsonage after Charlotte has married Mr. Collins, and we’ve accompanied Elizabeth again into Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle. Her parents’ foibles are as familiar to us as those of our own family. But without Baker’s book we hadn’t the barest acquaintance with the servants at Longbourn, Netherfield, Lucas Lodge, or Pemberley. As the author says in her note at the end of her book,
The main characters in Longbourn are ghostly presences in Pride and Prejudice; they exist to serve the family and the story. They deliver notes and drive carriages; they run errands when nobody else will step out of doors—they are the “proxy” by which the shoe-roses for Netherfield Ball are fetched in the pouring rain. But they are—at least in my head—people too.
So a great part of the pleasure in reading Longbourn is coming back to a familiar fictional place and adding a new dimension to our experience of it. Jo Baker goes places with her characters that Jane Austen never went. It is as if the servants and those whom they serve inhabit completely different worlds, as of course they do, from a social and economic perspective. Seeing Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their daughters through the eyes of their servants, therefore, gives a very different picture from the one painted in Austen’s original novel.

But another source is pleasure in reading Longbourn is simply Jo Baker’s beautiful writing. The housekeeper at Hunsford Parsonage peers into scoured pans with her “head cocked like a hen.” When Sarah goes out one night, she stumbles through “cow-churned fields.” We are in the country, in the English countryside, and see and hear and feel it all around us—the old drovers’ road near Longbourn and the stone steps of the boundary wall at Pemberley, “treads ... glossy with the years.”

Not everything is lovely and pastoral in this world, however, and Baker also brings in the muck and the blood of it, along with the far-off slavery that brings sugar to England and the plight of orphans and unwed mothers and country boys off to war in strange lands and widows and orphans in those strange lands. All this she manages with brilliant economy of language and without ever losing the focus on her characters. For instance, when collecting gossip from their aunt in Meryton, the girls learn, in passing, that “a private had been flogged,” and no more is said of the flogging by Austen. Baker has Sarah come unawares upon the scene in Meryton:
Her senses, briefly, could not accommodate the image.  
Then it was a pig. A carcass. A great slab of meat waiting to be skinned.  
Then her perceptions shifted again, true patterns formed: she saw the shape of human muscle, shoulder blade, a dark slick of hair, the cable-twist of neck.  
In the instant that she saw, she looked away, but by then it was too late. ...His skin was lurid in the dull light, his cheek hazed with greying stubble and flattened against the dark weathered wood. His eyes were wide and rolling, his jaw clenched. His body, held immobile by the bonds, was fiercely at work: his arm muscles shifted and twisted, his feet trod and braced against the cobbles like a horse’s.
It is a horrible scene, shocking to Sarah and to the reader, but the detail in it is not gratuitous, and the images are those of a masterful writer: “his feet ... braced against the cobbles like a horse’s.”

Somewhere I read a review of Longbourn that took issue with Baker’s mentions of chamber pots and night soil and women’s bloody napkins and babies’ stinking nappies. Well, this is the servants’ world: what the gentry would never mention and can pretend does not exist must be dealt with by the servants, and Baker does not dwell on it unduly. It’s just that in Pride and Prejudice, we share Jane and Elizabeth’s sheltered, privileged world; in Longbourn we are in Sarah and Polly’s world, the one that props the other up and makes it possible.

But there is another dimension, and if the “necessary house” takes us down a level from Austen’s world, the political and military realities Baker includes take us up to a bird’s eye view of England at that time—again, while always staying focused on her characters. History barely intrudes on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, but the Longbourn cast know its pinch and fear its chill winds.

Jo Baker loves Pride and Prejudice and has been re-reading it for most of her life, a love I share. When a good friend of mine said in our reading group that she “loved the language but didn’t like the characters at all,” my heart sank. Not like Eliza Bennet? No, my friend was impatient with Eliza and with all the rest because none of them knew what it meant to work; instead, they led what she considered superficial, pampered, frivolous lives. Now I can’t wait for my friend to read Longbourn. She will love both the language and the characters and will be drawn irresistibly into the drama of their lives.

I believe a reader coming to Longbourn without any knowledge of Jane Austen’s novel could still be bowled over by the story and the writing. Despite Baker’s inspiration, her work can stand on its own. I’m also sure readers like my friend who found Pride and Prejudice boring (!) will have a more positive reaction to Longbourn, finding it more “realistic.”

As for me, I will go on loving and re-reading Pride and Prejudice, only now I will also have Longbourn to love and re-read. My experience of the English countryside in the late 18th century has been deepened and broadened and enriched, especially as it pertains to one small English neighborhood, my love for that faraway, fictional place a reflection of my love for my own home.

Wild grape and willow at water's edge


trudy carpenter said...

Beautifully and comprehensively written, Pamela, and makes me want to read the book.

Karen Casebeer said...

This one is going on my reading list too! Love the last image and how nicely you've captured the ripples in the water. Karen

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, friends. Note to all: To place an order, please call or e-mail or, best yet, stop in the bookshop. Also, keep watching Books in Northport, because I'll be reviewing another Austen-inspired book in October, and the publisher is allowing me to sponsor a give-away of that new book. Excitement! What would Jane have made of it all?!

Anonymous said...

Great concept for a story..i enjoyed reading your post and can see "cow churned fields"...