Monday, 2 September 2013

'Longbourn' by Jo Baker

It’s felt like the last few days of summer here in South Manchester. One day I’m at the Beach House reading Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn’ and seeking shelter from the sun, and I’m in Kro café in Heaton Moor and the windows are open for a cooling breeze… and then the very next day I’m sitting indoors with my coffee at Café Rouge and ‘Penguin Science Fiction’ from 1961. It’s turned quite chilly and very Back-to-Schoolish overnight.

But I’ve always enjoyed that Autumnal feeling, and new books and stationery and sharpened pencils. I’ve been thinking quite carefully for a few days now, about which projects I’ll be working on through these milder months, and which books I’ll be spending my down-time in.

But first there’s the last books of summer to mull over.

I’d been waiting for Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn’ for a while, since I knew it was on its way in August. It really doesn’t disappoint. It is sure to be talked about as a mixture of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Downton Abbey’, and as a kind of highly commercial mash-up of any number of popular costume dramas. And that’s how it starts. We are very much downstairs, with the principal characters of Austen’s novel shunted off to the wings. We feel the buffeting force of their whims and silly dramas, but our concern is very much with the serving staff at Longbourn: with Mr and Mrs Hill, with our heroine Sarah, with Polly and James, the new, mysterious footman.

We’re further from the twee commonplace tropes associated with Austen, Darcy and the usual Regency shenanigans and instead, we’re closer to the raw stuff of life in this version of Austen’s world. We hear about the stained underclothes brewing in boiling water, and the headless hares bleeding into bowls and the making of lavender soap from fat scraped from split pigs. Life is about the gradual eradication of muck and hundreds of hours labouring over the things upstairs takes for granted.

But it’s also a world with a wider view. These are characters much more aware of the world beyond the petty concerns of their masters. The servants know why there are soldiers in the vicinity. Sarah and her adoptive family are keen to understand and learn about the wider world. James turns up in their lives and he brings with him all kinds of knowledge from beyond.

The Bennets come to seem callous in their trivial obsessions. Even the ones we love in the original book start to distort and shift their shapes. Mr Bennet is a neurotic fool, shamefully hiding his past. Unloved, unlovely Mrs Bennet, comes to seem braver. Mr Collins is a misunderstood child, of whom the Bennets made easy fun. Wickham and Darcy are well-nigh vampires. And Elizabeth starts to seem spoiled and almost cruel in her self-centredness.

It’s not just a simple upturned world. It’s about a shifting of genres. Everything is more serious because, for the poorer characters, more is at stake, every day. The tone is darker, and it’s a sexier book, too. When we dig into James’ backstory there are startling revelations – when we start to understand what he has been through in Spain, and where he came from in the first place.

There are some wounding shocks in store for us as we tack along the outlines of the previous book. This isn’t at all a heritage-industry revisitation of a fondly-loved classic and I was so glad to discover that. It’s a book all about danger and hard-won homecomings and not as frou-frou as it might at first appear.

And after all of that time in Georgian England – I decided that, for a complete change of pace, a bit of Golden Age Science Fiction might be just the ticket…

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