Sunday, December 22, 2013

What we're reading: Austen below stairs

This past week, I selected Longbourn, by Jo Baker, from the new books shelves for this month's respite from young adult novels. I am a fan (though not a fanatic) of Jane Austen (although I was somewhat horrified when we read P&P and Zombies for high school book club!), and had heard much about this retelling, from the servants' point of view, of Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice.

I almost put this book down without finishing several times. The first third (maybe even half) of the novel doesn't seem to justify the telling of the story. Baker is a lyrically descriptive writer, painting beautiful pictures of place and person, but at first this was all in service of meticulously detailing the underbelly of P&P: the difficulties of a life in service in a small middle-class Regency England household. As much as it added to the original story to hear about the hardships of laundering muddied petticoats (and more unmentionable items), slopping pigs, and waiting up until the wee hours to welcome the ladies home from their ball with a reviving cup of tea, that's all it seemed--an expansion upon an already known story. I thought several times, What's the point?

So, it took me awhile to like it better. The familiarity we have with Jane Austen's novel for which this is the back story is a double-edged sword when it comes to enjoying this book; at first, the reader delights in connecting the dots between that story and this one, but after awhile we want something entirely new without that necessary tie, and it didn't seem we were going to get it.

But just when I was ready to put the book down, the author came through with that new story, in the person of the elusive footman, who appears but once in Pride and Prejudice and is never seen again; and here we find out why. James Smith turned up and was employed by Mr. Bennet in the first part of the book, briefly intriguing the primary protagonist (Sarah, the housemaid) with his enigmatic presence, and then settling to his mostly unremarkable duties. But the presence of the militia in the neighborhood (as represented by the even more scurrilously represented Mr. Wickham) proves to be a difficulty for James, and finally, in Volume Three of the novel, we get both the story we were seeking and the political context of the times that was left out of Austen's oeuvre. The servants turn into real people at last, and we experience their struggles with the choices they make, good and bad, and the possible heavy consequences attendant on daring to choose at all.

Ultimately, this is a quiet story, but deeply felt, and I'm glad I persevered. I look forward to seeing what Jo Baker will come up with next.

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