Emma was my gateway; Persuasion is my favorite.
But like everyone else, I have a soft spot for Pride and Prejudice. I watched the 1995 P&P mini-series over and over again, non-stop, for an entire summer. Over Two Hundred Years of Swoon can’t be denied.
Despite that, Austen re-boots and re-imaginings vary wildly for me as some of my favorite things in the world (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) to some of the things I hate the most (Scents and Sensibility). I didn’t love the portrayal of the Bennett’s as barely scraping by gentry in Focus Features’ film. There are more pros than cons to that movie, but really the best pro is Matthew MacFadyen’s Darcy, and the biggest con is Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet. Yikes.
“If you love Austen, then … “
There is one aspect to Austen being in the public domain that has always inspired my ire: all those crappy spin off novels. I roll my eyes at the “Passion at Pemberley” “The Pursuit of Mary Bennet” and “Mrs. Darcy Solves a Murder” titles on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. I don’t need to read someone’s torrid fantasy of the Darcy married life. I didn’t even like the weird half-clothed glimpse of it that we got with Matthew MacFadyen and Keira Knightly. That “incandescently happy” scene makes me feel awkwardly voyeuristic.
It’s like someone writing about your great aunt getting it on. It happened, ok. But it’s squicky to hear about it in detail.
I know. I know. You’re thinking it. I’m thinking it. We are ALL thinking it. “Beth, you are super into fanfiction. HOW can this not be your thing?”
I don’t know. I just don’t like it. Maybe I just don’t like reading the word, “cock” in Elizabeth Bennet’s voice (I’m so sorry, Jennifer Ehle). Maybe it seems like Austen is above having her works unscrupulously fanfictionalized. No, that doesn’t seem like me. I don’t really think ANYone’s work is above that. I LOVE fanfiction.
But when it comes to Pride and Prejudice sequels, I understand why some people hate it. Which is perhaps why it took me so long to finally read Longbourn by Jo Baker.
Longbourn was published in 2013, and I bought it the day it released. It had great pre-release reviews, the author was well-respected and educated, and at that particular moment in pop culture history, we were all still OBSESSED with Downton Abbey. And Longbourn is the story of the other half of the Bennet household, the staff half.
The official summary:
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.
Movies like Gosford Park and series like Downton Abbey are compelling for lots of reasons … fantastic acting, tightly woven plots, gorgeous sets and costumes. But the intrigues of the period piece that we see beyond the flash and pomp of the gentry class are what make them more relatable. After all, how many of us can say that we would be descended from the Bingley’s or the Bennet’s and not the housekeeper or the valet or the tenant farmer.
Seeing a story you know well from the underside of it gives the original more meaning, more gravitas. The dramas of Elizabeth and Jane and Lydia are happening literally over Sarah the housemaid’s head, but we know them. And while we remember their import, we can also appreciate their pretension in light of Sarah’s chilblains, her lack of funds and her total dearth of future prospects.
If You Hate Fanfiction
First of all, check yourself. Because it’s the best (usually). Many a fandom has improved upon an original work with its fanworks.
But if you hate fanfiction and love Austen, read Longbourn. Baker gives us new perspectives on the mesalliance of the Bennets, the abject despair in Mrs. Bennet’s mothering, the awkward tenor of Mr. Collins and more.
The novel has none of the hallmarks of Austen fic … there is not a single fawning over Darcy or Bingley. I don’t even think they are described except one time when Sarah finds Darcy uncommonly large while he looms over her. So you don’t ever have to imagine Darcy and Lizzie doing it. WIN WIN.
If you love fanfiction
YAY. Then this novel is must read for you. Baker has given us a novel with its own pace, its own complications, its own voice. It expands your view of the original work without tainting it. It provides more, as good derivative works always do.
If you love Austen
… read Longbourn.