Where do I start?
Actually, that's easy. Any review of Longbourn
should feature this warning right at the top: If you are an Austen purist, this book will give you a stroke and a heart attack and possibly cancer.
So there's that.
Oh, also: Any novel written by a non-servant is apparently required by law to feature at least one passage in which a character who is
a servant will ponder life as a person of leisure and decide, "Naw. Overrated."
Yeah. THAT happened.
I wanted to adore this book because I'm tired of people talking about how lovely life was in the Regency. No, it wasn't. Not even if you were rich, although that was *miles* better than being poor.
Even if you were rich, there was no plumbing, very little in the way of social mobility, and nothing remotely resembling a maxi pad, let alone a tampon. (Not even, in spite of what the author of Longbourn
says, any "napkins." Where would you put one? There wasn't anything in the way of underwear as we know it. See Susanne Alleyn's awesome Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders
for convincing evidence of that.)
There was no reliable birth control, and no quick-and-easy food for those nights when you just don't feel like cooking. Women spent all day preparing or looking after the work of food preparation, and routinely wrote their wills when they became pregnant.
There were no no-fault divorces, and very few "he's TOTALLY at fault" divorces even if your husband was an adulterous batterer.
And -- I'm saving the worst for last here -- there was NO CHOCOLATE. Okay, there was a drink
called chocolate, but it was outrageously expensive and it wasn't sweet.
I love Austen's novels, but I have no illusions about the era in which she lived and wrote. I worked as a live-in domestic myself, and I'm constantly thinking about the servants who made those leisured lives possible.
So I was excited to read Longbourn,
a retelling of Pride & Prejudice
from the vantage point of one of the Bennet's housemaids. I was sold when I read the pull-quote every review featured: "If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them."
Perfect. Think about that
the next time you read the scene in P&P where Lizzy shows up at Bingley's house with her petticoat three inches deep in mud.
I admire Jo Baker's determination to show the story from a different angle. Her premise is solid, her prose beautiful.
So why am I so put-out by this book?
Partly because it's a bummer from beginning to end. It's Les Miserables
without the funny musical numbers.
I think it's just as dehumanizing to servants to assume their lives are endless misery as it is to ignore them. Yes, this book has a happy ending, technically. But it starts out bleak, it continues dire, and it crosses the finish line with a vague "So that
turned out okay, I guess."
Speaking of bleak: Anyone who's read Bleak House
will probably not find the "surprise middle" of Longbourn
particularly surprising. Many who have read P&P will find aspects of it offensive.
Jo Baker takes a lot of liberties with P&P. I never thought of myself as a purist, but this bothered me. For instance, she insists on following the heavily trod (trodden? trode? whatever) path of Mary Bennet being infatuated with Mr. Collins. Know what it says in the book about that?
"Mary might have been prevailed on to accept him. She rated his abilities much higher than any of the others; there was a solidity in his reflections which often struck her, and though by no means so clever as herself, she thought that if encouraged to read and improve himself by such an example as her's [sic], he might become a very agreeable companion."
"She thinks he's a fixer-upper," my husband commented when I read this to him. But everybody -- movie-makers, Austen "sequel" writers -- somehow turns this into Mary adoring Mr. Collins from afar and longing to have him as her own. And of course Baker follows suit.
She also features quotations from P&P at the beginning of every chapter. Except in the flashback section, where they wouldn't make sense. Except I don't think they make sense anywhere.
What are they supposed to be? Messages from God?
Anyway. Back to the liberties. Mary's in love. Mr. Collins is a really nice guy, not at all pompous or judgmental. Mr. Bennet has a lot of lines, and one
of them is cuttingly sarcastic. One.
Are you ishing me?
Speaking of ish: Baker talks about it a lot. By name. It is, apparently, everywhere
in Regency England. You couldn't open your carriage door without smacking into a load of ish. I'm surprised the publisher didn't offer a special scratch-and-sniff edition of Longbourn,
just to get the point across. Point being: Wow, you guys, was there a lot
of manure in the bad old days.
You know what there wasn't? The kind of 21st-century thinking Baker gives her miserable underclass characters. The line about how Miss Bennet could be a little more careful of her things was perfect. But there's no way
a teenaged maidservant in the eighteenth century was thinking, "Really no one should have to deal with another person's dirty linen."
Really? This little revolutionary decided all on her own not that laundry day sucks -- a sentiment that holds true to this very day -- but that all people should have the doing of their own underthings?
Similarly, Mrs. Hill the housekeeper is often burdened by Mrs. Bennet's emotional demands. Mrs. Hill has quite enough work to do to fill her day already without having to offer a shoulder to cry on just when the bread is rising. That works. I love that.
This very Mrs. Hill -- overworked, miserable, a character who seems to exist only to be taken advantage of -- is the one who decides near the end of the book that, really, there's not much difference between living as a servant and being a genteel lady. "The end was all the same."
I mentioned this is a happy book, right?
The writing is very, very good. The author has clearly done her research, and it shows without seeming show-offy.
But in the end, this book was just. A. Bummer.