Monday, 12 May 2014

Longbourn Review

I have a general theory that is it in the make-up of most women to be a fan of Jane Austen. Flirting with the redcoats and sipping tea all afternoon isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but most of us love a good love story, and that is exactly what Jane Austen delivers in Pride and Prejudice. I had the pleasure to study this for A-Level and subsequently read a few of the other novels, but I feel Pride and Prejudice was her crowning work.

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It’s amazing that it’s been such a popular novel, one that has gained popularity over the last two hundred years. There are many reasons for this; from its universal themes of irrational love and a good scandal such as an eloping sister. There have been many adaptions over the years, from films, radio plays to novels taking place before and after. I first heard about Longbourn on BBC Radio 4 where the author was talking about her reasons for writing a novel about the servants, the hidden people of Pride and Prejudice. So being a bit sleepless the other night I decided to download it onto my kindle and have a read.
This novel resonated with me, because at this particular place in my life, I feel I am serving in subservient roles, and no matter how much I educate myself, there is the barrier of dependency between living and money. After I fell asleep I had this intense feeling of being trapped in that servant role, and when I woke I was distinctly glad I was living in a society where people weren’t ruled by their social sphere. It isn’t very often that a novel or story makes me feel glad that I live in the current world.
The author isn’t shy of highlighting the daily grind and grievances of servant life, the constant chilblains, the long hours, falling over in pig poo. She writes with a touch of Jane Austen’s style, it a nod to the period and this author has embodied part of Jane Austen’s world, but added themes such as homosexuality, seducing the young and innocent and children born out of wedlock. Sympathy for otherwise unlikable characters is created and likeable characters are given a subtle dressing down. Overall, all of the characters are reminded that they are human and not above bodily functions when we see Colonel Fitzwilliam relieving himself in some bushes. The author could choose to emphasis this, she could attack the beloved Elizabeth Bennet by saying that she does of course fart like the rest of us, but I’m glad she doesn’t.
I do however feel that the characters are sometimes stereotypes and not always their own true person and there is more historical context placed, the character James is used to show what was happening in Europe and place a less favourable light on the glory of the English Militia. This helped to define his character and give us insight that Sarah lacks. One aspect I love however is how Mr Wickham is suggested to like younger woman and girls a little too much, it keeps in with his character so superbly and I was feeling on edge when he had cornered the young Polly. It was even better when James dealt Wickham a much needed blow.
One thing that strikes me in the novel is that the gentry and upper classes are never truly alone, indeed it is the same for the servants, you are constantly surrounded by those you choose to ignore, the servants try to become invisible, but at the end of the day there is still a human being breathing in the room. The main character Sarah managed to have some time alone, and that must be a breath of air to her. This little breaks for freedom are quickly met with some sort of negative outcome, she falls ill on the way back from an errand, after seeing a man flogged, she is cuffed harshly around the ears by a housekeeper in Kent. However in the she does finally make her break into freedom.
There is a sense of filling a certain role, Sarah fills the role of servant because she came from the poorhouse. Once Elizabeth is married to Mr Darcy, she must fulfil the role of mistress of Pemerberly, a role she is not yet accustomed to, especially noted when giving out the staff wages. Sarah goes from a busy, demanding role as skivvy to lady’s maid who is reduced to mending delicate underwear, Elizabeth goes from a lady doing little, to a lady managing a full household. There is a sense of balance and need within the novel, the upper classes rely on the servant for their day to day living, and the servant class must rely on the gentry for their wage and living.
I had always quite liked the character of Elizabeth, she is witty, lovely and does have her own faults, yet in Longbourn the author succeeds inducing this gentle sense of nothingness to their lives. I felt at times that Jane and Elizabeth were merely breathes of air inside a dress that floated about, and gave off the odd opinion. I don’t know whether to applaud or tell the author off for giving this view of the girls; I feel there is an undertone of feminist disapproval. Jane and Elizabeth can’t help their upbringing and station in life because of their gender and class, so of course they may appear slightly empty, but that doesn’t meant their life is without justification and meaning. In the modern age we have the luxury of applying our social ideas and politics to historical literature; we will look for meaning and new insights with each new generation.
Sarah breaks the mould of servant life by perusing the man she loves, risking the best working position of her life for the unknown dangers of the world. Going by scraps of information and a general direction of north, Sarah leaves to find James who has chosen to vanish. The end of the novel is nicely drawn together, Mrs Hill is able to have Mr Bennet to herself again, it is not a sense of love however, almost reversed ownership, his intelligence and eyesight fading, he relies on her for company. The infamous Mr Bennet has come down a few pegs, and Mrs Hill can throw off the label of housekeeper and be his companion in the evenings. I liked the character of Mrs Hill, she is brisk and efficient, but she loves and protects Sarah and Polly, like her own daughters. She however isn’t a jolly, fat housekeeper, I was glad the author avoided that cliché.

Overall, it was a good novel, and I feel the author has managed to give us a glimpse into another world around Pride and Prejudice, it is a modern novel with a touch of the Austen feeling. However in the recent spurge of the modernised Austen franchise (Death Comes to Pemerberly etc) I feel we are soon reaching the limit of what we can adapt and do with Pride and Prejudice. Jo Baker has however managed to get her novel done before the market has become too saturated, and managed to create a piece that is hugely memorable. 

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