Monday, November 20, 2017

Look at me, reading a grown-up book!


There is a life beyond kids' books. Apparently.
Once in a while, I venture out of the kids’ section of the bookshop or library and find myself in the grown-up aisles. Usually this happens when I’m on the look-out for the latest title from Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Coe, David Mitchell or ArtoPaasilina, but occasionally I end up with books that I haven’t looked for at all and didn’t even know existed. Such was the case with Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a hand-me-down from a friend who has recently been converted to the joys of tidying and did a clearout of her shelves.

I am a long-time fan of Jane Austen’s, whose books I have read and re-read a respectable number of times (which is quite a rare occurrence for me). Why, I even wrote a thesis on Presentation and Representation of the Body in Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sanditon! A clear favourite, as for a lot of people, is P&P which I have read enough times to feel like I could quote the dialogues verbatim (but I can’t really), which I’ve seen adapted numerous times on TV and on stage, and of which I have read a handful of spin-offs. Among the latter, I would heartily recommend Natasha Farrant’s Lydia, the Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice: a brilliant, brilliant take on the original that gives Wickham a break and Lydia a chance, and is a great teen novel in its own right.
But back to Longbourn. Longbourn is the Upstairs Downstairs version of P&P, with a main focus on Downstairs, as we follow Sarah the maid in her interactions with her peers, her immediate superiors (Mrs Hill) and her ‘betters’. With Sarah we scrub, we brush, we polish. We scatter tea leaves to help sweep up the dust, we trim bonnets and wash Mrs Gardiner’s kids’ stinky nappies. We trek through the muddy lanes of Meryton, avoiding dodgy militiamen and trundling carriages. Young Polly’s less-than-thorough approach to most jobs quickly irritates a reader who is wholly on conscientious (but not all-accepting) Sarah’s side; or at least until we find out Polly is only twelve and way too young by modern standards to be doing most of the work that is her lot.
Baker has done her research very well and wears it very lightly and yet it’s in plain sight. The craftsmanship of Sarah and her colleagues as they go through their unforgiving chores is fascinating and, perversely, a joy to behold. The dirtier, the better. Suddenly, the likes of Elizabeth and Jane appear much more alive and human now that we know how their soiled linen is washed and boiled be it as part of the dreaded weekly washday or following their ‘monthlies’.
Who do you think curled that hair and laundered that frock?
And yet, at the same time, they remain figures at the periphery of Sarah’s life and story. The Bennets are, ironically, enormously absent, even though their requests and needs dictate what goes on downstairs. Shadows and shadow-puppet masters at the same time, the family cannot claim Longbourn as their own and the novel is not Pride and Prejudice. Cleverly, the original gives Baker’s book its tempo and an initial framework, but not its plot. All the events that readers of Austen know are only relayed in so far as they impact on the maids and cook and footman, all the social engagements becoming another chore on an infinite to-do list, the balls equating to somebody waiting half the night in the cold by the carriage… Darcy’s declaration is a non-event, it only features in as much as Sarah opens the Collins’ door to him on the fateful day where he makes a complete idiot of himself. But she’s not in the room to see it and nothing transpires below stairs.

As Baker puts it in her afterword, ‘where the two books overlap, the events of this novel are mapped directly onto Jane Austen’s. When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn.’

'When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn.’
Not all Austen fans will be charmed by Baker’s take as it will be seen as ‘tinkering’ with beloved characters. She adds nothing that isn’t already there in so far as the Upstairs are concerned, but she digs deeper behind the scenes and pushes some traits, sometimes to the extreme. Lizzie isn’t all that nice and charming when dealing with people are not on her social radar (‘Oh! Smith! You mean the footman! (…) You called him Mr Smith, that’s why I misunderstood you; I thought you meant someone of my acquaintance. I thought you meant a gentleman.’) And as for Wickham, suffice it to say that he definitely does not get a break here.
Baker’s prose is masterful and so self-assured that it is hard to believe this is her début. Just as she’s not afraid to unpick the fabric of P&P, she boldly goes at the fabric of language, often playing with nominal sentences that, despite their lack of verbs, are hugely dramatic and bombard the reader’s senses. When Sarah and Darcy finally come face to face (not by the Pemberley pond, not in a bathroom, but in a perfectly respectable drawing-room scene), in the closing pages of the novel, here is what we can read: ‘Sarah risked a look at his big handsome face, the meat of him: the sheen of cheekbone and nose, the gloss of eyes, the smooth rubbery flesh of his shaved lip. He was descended from a race of giants; he must be.’


‘The meat of him’!
This is a rich, daring, vivid and, yes, meaty, reimagining that more than stands on its own two legs and has a lot to say about the horrors and joys of work, the place and consideration of women and girls, the passing of time, the madness of war, and the importance of making a place your own, be it Pemberley or indeed Longbourn.

Highly recommended!

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