I’m sure that many reviews of Jo Baker’s Longbourn begin like this, but I’ll say it anyway: I don’t usually read Jane Austen sequels. Or prequels. Or indeed anything ‘inspired by’, ‘in the style of’, or ‘after’ Jane Austen. In fact, many years ago now I declared my household a ‘Jane Austen Sequel-Free Zone’, a new development my family had no trouble getting behind on account of them not really caring about Jane Austen at all (it’s tough, but with family you have to love them for all their qualities, good and bad).
The reason behind this strict ruling is simple. I admire Jane Austen. I admire her as a writer, and in particular as a comic writer of incredible skill and subtlety. I don’t think there’s many people who could mimic her characteristic style. I don’t think they need to. Austen’s work stands very well on its own. I don’t need to know what happens to Lucy Steele, or whether Mary Bennet ever finds a man, or how Mr and Mrs Darcy’s wedding night goes down. There is enough inside Austen’s novels, in short, to keep me occupied for a lifetime. I don’t need to try and imagine what happens outside of them.
“But wait!” I hear you cry. “Isn’t that a little hypocritical? Do you not own a copy of Lost in Austen and Clueless? Have you not read books like A Truth Universally Acknowledged and The Friendly Jane Austen? Did you not watch The Jane Austen Bookclub – and cry – more than once?!” To which I reply – um.
Yes, I am a touch hypocritical in this way. And sometimes it is really nice to dip into the fluffy, pink Austen myth, the idea that Austen somehow holds all the secrets to life, and love, and looking good in jeans-shorts. Things that don’t mess with the existing plot of the stories (obvious cases aside, Lost in Austen) and are just a little bit like comfort food. But I still tend to stay away from things that deal with the actual plots.
But there comes a time in every stubborn hypocrite’s life when they must suck it up, take the plunge, and swap their long linen pants for a pair of shorts. And in the realm of Austen continuations, my pair of shorts was Longbourn.
I might never have read it at all, if it weren’t for the fact that a little while ago, I learned that the author, Jo Baker, would be appearing at the Perth Writers’ Festival. I was interested to see what she would say; how she would talk about Austen and her treatment of the original material. Before I knew it I’d bought a ticket. Not long after that I realised that not reading the novel would be a great oversight.
So I bought a copy and began reading. And kept reading. I was about halfway through when I went to the session. Baker was speaking with Olivia Murphy, a local scholar whose work focuses on Jane Austen. And it proved to be an illuminating session, even if I didn’t always agree with everything that was said.
If you haven’t read the book, here’s a quick rundown; the book is described by Baker as a “subquel” to Pride and Prejudice, a story that operates beneath the level of Austen’s original text. It’s rather like a Georgian take on Downton Abbey, telling the tale of the servants at Longbourn, who are largely nameless in Austen’s work. The difference is, of course, that there are fewer plotting manservants and a complete and utter lack of Maggie Smith (which is unfortunate, but I suppose can’t be helped).
The novel contains about as much detailed description of domestic habits as you could possibly wish for, including genuine Georgian methods for cleaning floorboards (throwing tea leaves on them and then sweeping them up, which Baker admitted she’d tested to great success). It’s obvious from the first page of Longbourn that the author has done her research; there’s not a single detail missing.
Another great plus is the language. There are some lovely passages in the novel, and the description is intense and coloured by the servants’ own thoughts. At the start of every chapter is a short passage from Austen, which Baker says was chosen based on the way it interacted with her own text. The two novels are intended to be in dialogue with one another, she explained, and readers of the original will pick up on more than a few in-jokes.
However, there’s very few similarities between Austen and Baker. Everything about Longbourn emphasises the bleak, messy world the servants of Georgian England inhabited. There’s very little brightness and no comedy. To my mind, this worked to the book’s advantage; it made it easy to separate Longbourn from Pride and Prejudice and read it as something completely different.
Baker claims that a line in Pride and Prejudice – “the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy” – originally inspired the story. This line sparked her interest in the doings of the people who are ‘behind the scenes’ in Austen. It was also partly inspired by her own family’s history; her grandmother and other family members had been in service. There is, therefore, a deeply personal element in the novel. The book is driven by her belief that the stories of these ‘ordinary’ people deserve to be told as much as those of their privileged masters. Perhaps that explains the feeling that I got, when reading the book, that there was more than a little anger behind the descriptions of back-breaking chores that the servants performed daily. This was the moment, I think, that I began to feel a little more kindly towards the book.
Baker proved to be very well-spoken and extremely well-read, particularly in the literature of the time. I finished the book more quickly than I had started it after hearing her speak. I was fascinated by the idea that one can read back-and-forth, following the servants of Longbourn into Pride and Prejudice and then back into Longbourn again. I’m not sure I’m quite so dedicated as that, but apparently people have done it and found it rewarding.
I finished the book with mixed feelings. As a book about domestic servants in Georgian England, it was well-written and interesting. I think what kept me from liking it whole-heartedly, however, was the same thing that had almost stopped me reading it. The Austen connection. I agree that working-class people throughout history deserve their own stories – and that they can be as interesting as the things that happen to their wealthy masters. But in my opinion (and I’m sure many will disagree) Longbourn would work just as well – or even better – if it was a completely separate story. Of course, the Jane Austen connection certainly means it gets more exposure. From a practical side that’s very attractive. But I still find I’m reluctant to embrace the idea of writing around Jane Austen in any way. Forward, backwards, up or down, I don’t like Austen continuations in any direction. Longbourn may have begun the process by which I change my mind, but I don’t know that I’m completely there yet.
Rating: 3.5 Stars