Thursday, April 17, 2014

'Longbourn' by Jo Baker

17 April 2014

Jane Austen's novels must have generated more sequels, prequels, parodies and imitators than any others, but Jo Baker's wonderful novel 'Longbourn' stands out from the crowd. 'Longbourn', which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book narrated by Emma Fielding, revisits characters and scenes from 'Pride and Prejudice' from the point of view of the Bennetts' servants. As with Tom Stoppard's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead', for everyone familiar with the original, there is great pleasure to be had from discovering what happened in between the bits we know. And Jo Baker is very good at demonstrating how little those below stairs notice or understand about events which appear so momentous in Austen's story. But 'Longbourn' succeeds so well because it is a complete novel in its own right, with a self-contained plot – an achingly painful love story – that would make it an enjoyable and satisfying read even if you had never heard of 'Pride and Prejudice'. 'Longbourn' is a very modern novel, but completely true to its period setting. It is beautifully written, without succumbing to the temptation to imitate Austen's prose style. Jo Baker evokes the harsh realities of a servant's life and explores some of the darker questions beneath the polite society of Jane Austen's world. Revealing that Mr Bingley's wealth comes from sugar, she explores the role of slavery – which makes for interesting comparisons with those in service in England. The arrival of the army in Meriton takes us on a journey into the horrors of an ordinary soldier's experiences in the European wars. But all this is done without any knowing, contemporary sneering: 'Longbourn' tells it how it was and allows the readers to draw their own conclusions. One of the most intriguing revelations concerns the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennett. From 'Pride and Prejudice' (and more so in many of its film and TV adaptations) Mr Bennett appears to be a saint, while his wife is an incredibly irritating comic character. It is tempting to wonder how they ever got together. Jo Baker paints a much more sympathetic portrait of Mrs Bennett and shows a darker, but sadly believable, side to her husband. 'Longbourn' is a clever, fascinating and moving novel – highly recommended. 



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