My Week in Books: 29th March 2015

Only one book this week but that’s a good thing as I have a lot to say about it.

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LONGBOURN by JO BAKER

How long: About a week I think.

Favourite quote: Life was, Mrs Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually, failed.

Would I read it again: Not for a long, long while.

The quote on the cover says ‘A reimagining of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants…. A joy.’

It is a joy, it’s a great book, but I’m not entirely sure I’m glad I read it.

Yes it is a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants but it’s so much more than that. Most importantly it’s a story in its own right – it’s not just Jane Austen rewritten. Jo Baker takes clues from the text and fleshes out a story in between the lines.

Ignoring for a moment that it has anything to do with Pride and Prejudice and it is an amazing book. One of the best I’ve read so far this year. The characters made sense, they felt real. In fact, by the end they felt more real than the Jane Austen characters I knew so well.

But she also adds a grittier element to this world. Throughout all of Jane Austen’s novels the only reference to the harsher realities outside this bubble of courtship and marriage I can think of is in Mansfield Park, when Fanny asks Sir Thomas about slavery in the East Indies. Beyond that the books stay really very superficial. And I don’t mind that. In fact I like that. It makes them such an easy, pleasurable read; escapism in its truest form. And it’s possible I had previously read books set in a similar time frame to Jane Austen’s novels that tackled the conditions of the lower classes and the political issues in the wider world but I’d never connected the two. In Longbourn, however, the link is inescapable. The Bennetts and Dashwoods and Elliots and Woodhouses were overworking their servants, taking slavery for granted and ignoring the war that was raging across most of mainland Europe. And that’s not how I want to be thinking of them. I want to be able to enjoy the stories as I did before without that gnawing feeling in the back of my mind that there’s a bigger picture that’s being completely overlooked.

I think I could come to terms with this though if at least Lizzy Bennett had been protected. I hold her up as a shining example of a perfect heroine – flawed but extremely likeable. But now that I’ve seen her through the eyes of the servants she loses that. She’s self-centred and impervious to the tough conditions of the servants and the hours of work that are caused when she traipses through three miles of mud. It pains me to think that this is probably a realistic portrayal. Jane Austen herself probably didn’t care two tuppence for what her servants were going through, that was just how it was in the 1800s.  But as Sirius Black says ‘If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.’

Usually I want a book to stay with me. I want to look at it on my shelf and have the characters and plot and emotions come flooding back to me. If a book can do that even years after I first read it then that’s a mark of a really good story. But I really hope I forget Longbourn so I can enjoy Jane Austen again in all her superficial, ignorant glory.

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