I didn't realise how long it had been since I last posted. Over a month. Ahem. So much for my new year resolution to write more frequently. Better get back on the horse.
While I've been away the Orange Bailey's Prize for Women's Fiction longlist has been announced, and what an excitingly rounded list it seems. I've read The Luminaries so far, and have Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld waiting in the wings. Of the others I'm keen to get my mitts on The Signature of All Things, Reasons She Goes to the Woods and Americanah. I was a little disappointed not to see Karen Jay Fowler's rather wonderful and intense We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves on the list. I finished it in the week before the long list was announced and honestly thought it was a foregone conclusion that it would be in the running.
But enough distraction, really I wanted to blog something brief and glowing about Jo Fletcher's Longbourn. What a sweet and melliflous book it is! It's one of those sequels to Pride and Prejudice, except not really. Rather than picking up the life threads of Lizzy and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Lydia and Wickham, Longbourn peeps below stairs to tell the story of their servants and runs parallel to the main story. The people who make Austen's world of languid leisure and love-making possible - the housekeeper Mrs Hill and housemaid Sarah, the footman mentioned just once in Chapter 3 and of the nameless second housemaid - are brought out of the shadows. Their wishes, desires and heartaches are foregrounded, while the famous characters above-stairs are almost silent.
Sarah, the Bennet's housemaid of all work - laundress, assistant cook, seamstress, hairdresser, letter-carrier - has lived a quiet life. Adopted into the house as a child her world is a small one, reaching only as far as Meryton in one direction and the drover's road that runs past Longbourn in the other. She is most intimately acquainted with the inside of the laundry kettle. In a house full of adult women there is always washing to be done. She wryly observes that if Lizzy Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats she wouldn't coat them six inches deep in mud.
The arrival of Mr Bingley and co (and the Militia of course) is as much of a shake-up for her as it is for the women who unwittingly run her ragged. Bingley brings his own servants with him - a shadow army to run Netherfield- and amongst them the charming Ptolemy Bingley, a freed slave from the family plantation (and possibly Bingley's own illegitimate brother). He is unlike anybody that Sarah has ever met before, and immediately interesting. He fills her mind with London, and faraway hot places, and turns her head in a way that Mrs Hill most definitely does not approve of.
At the same time the mysterious James Smith turns up at Longbourn and somehow convinces Mr Bennet to take him on as footman. He is taciturn and unflinching, infuriating in both his application to his work and his refusal to give Sarah a second glance. She's a bright girl - she borrows books from Mr B - and starved of interest, desperate for drama, she scents a conspiracy. She becomes convinced James is hiding something and she means to find out what it is...
What with Ptolemy in and out of the kitchen with messages for the ladies upstairs, and James' tantalising secret, Sarah has very few thoughts to spare for the love lives of the Bennet sisters. The reader knows that Lizzy has been snubbed by Darcy and wooed by Wickham and is in emotional turmoil, but Sarah doesn't register it. Just as Lizzy has no access to Sarah's mental world in Pride and Prejudice, so Sarah has no access to Lizzy's in Longbourn. The name Darcy doesn't even appear until page 263, and then barely in passing. He is as remote from Sarah's life as she from his. Bingley in this novel is a footman; and the Bingley family is tainted by a fortune made in sugar and the slave trade. It is a useful corrective, giving us an alternative route into Austen's textual world. In Longbourn, Mr Collins is a bumbling pleasant man eager to be pleased; he is kind to Sarah, and she thinks of him fondly. His marriage to Charlotte Lucas is judged to be excellent good fortune, not only because Lizzy would have been a disastrous mismatch but because Miss Lucas is fond of Mrs Hill and unlikely to turf the servants out when Collinses inherit Longbourn.
If you know Pride and Prejudice well, and if you like it, all of this play with beloved characters and events is charming and fun. This isn't the only reason to recommend Longbourn though. The writing is delicious, teasing, intimate and my greatest moment-by-moment pleasure while I was reading it. Jo Baker hasn't tried to imitate Austen's ascerbic wit. Instead she has gone for a dreamy tactile sort of prose, and played to her strength. Which is, rather unexpectedly, nature writing. The servants live in a world where the weather, the seasons, birds and growing things form the key points of interest. There are no grand vistas, no sophisticated paintings or fashions, no music, except those things that are barely glimpsed or overheard in passing. Longbourn is a different way of seeing an overly familiar period world. It's got proper commitment to it's concept, beyond the initial conceit, which is why I think I liked it so very much.