Friday, July 14, 2017

Longbourn, by Jo Baker.

I've been following my instincts with my reading this year. Bliss. Longbourn published in 2013, came to me from a throw-out table of deleted books in a remote Northern Territory school library; a serendipitous find, given I hadn't heard of it. (Cheers, sister Janey.) There are heaps of reviews on line already, but here's mine.

The characters and setting of Jo Baker's Longbourn are those of Pride and Prejudice, however, the Bennet family is seen from the perspectives of the servants, who very much have their own stories. Remember Mrs Bennet's frantic calls for 'Hill!' when things needed organising? Well, Hill, Mrs, comes to life in this story, as does old nearly toothless Mr Hill, who supports and shares but makes no demands on Mrs Hill, preferring the companionship of men. Baker also shows us the lives of servants, Sarah, aged about fifteen and Polly, maybe twelve. Both girls serve and owe their survival to the Bennet family, to whom they are not quite enslaved, but not far off. Two young men give further insight. They are James Smith and Ptolemy Bingley. James is the footman who mysteriously comes to work for the Bennets. Ptolemy is a so called 'mulatto' footman, born into service for the Bingleys, hence his surname. Both are thoughtful and intelligent and not quite accepting of their lot, although James became so, but I don't want to say too much about that.

The novel begins at about four on a cold September morning. Love the opening line. "There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering..." a parody of the opening of Pride and Prejudice itself - "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." I was out there freezing with Sarah, as she began her working day. 'The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the undergraound dark and into her waiting pail.'  The picture of the sleeping household effortlessly involved me. "All else was stillness. Sheep huddled in drifts on the hillside; birds in the hedgerows were fluffed like the sty, the sow twitched, her piglets bundled at her belly. Mrs Hill and her husband, up high in their tiny attic, slept the black blank sleep of deep fatigue; two floors below, in the principal bedchanber, Mr and Mrs Bennet were a pair of churchyard humps under the counterpane..." On that otherwise sleeping cold morning, having filled two pails of well water, Sarah hitches these onto a yoke which she hoists onto her shoulders before making her precarious way to the house. Unfortunately, she skids in hogshit, which no one has had time to clear, and loses her effortful load. Those first three pages of Longbourn are enticing. Baker writes skilfully; her prose is easy to read, evokes all the senses and has loads of subtext.

If you know the world of Pride and Prejudice, you know its machinations; its balls, its walks into Meryton for bits of lace on the lookout for the diverting redcoats of the militia. You know its ringlets, highwaisted frocks and bonnets and the necessity of a good marriage for the upperclass. What I hadn't previously considered was how often the serving girls were sent out into the elements on fatuous errands when the inclement weather prevented the ladies from braving the outdoors. Baker takes us into that other world. Despite Sarah's protestations of the goodness of Elizabeth and Jane, they seem self-absorbed and sadly lacking. Both ladies raise their arms so Sarah may dress them. They step out of their discarded clothes and Sarah picks them up for folding, repair or laundering as needed. Yes, they occasionally hand over a chap book or an unwanted old fashioned dress - treasures to Sarah - but they treat her with as much regard as someone today might treat their washing machine - missing it if it breaks down but otherwise taking it for granted. The class system, that upstairs/downstairs mentality, is acutely felt.

Sarah, who is able to read, is a thoughtful and perceptive young woman. She usually accepts her lot and isn't judgmental. However, her observations allow readers to evaluate the characters. It is Sarah's destiny to serve the Bennet family for a meagre wage per quarter. She is a chattel of the household; largely invisible. As the imposing gentleman - Darcy - barges past her she feels herself becoming physically transparent, so unacknowledged is she.

The Longbourn world, and other places further afield are also reflected through the eyes of James Smith, footman.  "They were lucky to get him...what with the War in Spain, and the press of so many able fellows into the Navy; there was, simply put, a dearth of men." He barely registers for the ladies of the Bennet household yet he greatly eases the strain for the overworked servants. He works tirelessly for the family, driving the ladies out to balls with the horse and carriage, keeping himself occupied throughout the freezing nights until the entertainment is over then driving them home again. His arrival at Longbourn is somewhat mysterious. James' story in many ways drives the narrative. To say more would be to ruin an intriguing plot.

The complexity of the lives of the servants would have made an interesting story in itself but it is faxcinating to have a good look at the dirty laundry of the privileged Bennet household. We know about Lydia's disgrace from Pride and Prejudice and we know that the family allows Lydia and Wickham to return to Longbourn. However, it is Mrs Hill who must deal with the newly weds' soiled linen. Mrs Hill "peeled out the few chemises and petticoats and nightgowns that Lydia had bundled away...tried not to look too directly at them, or inhale the odours of cheap lodging houses, sweat and sex./ She steeped the soiled linen - blood and sweat and spunk and travel dust, and the shiny grubbiness of things that have gone too long between washing - in lye, prodding at it with the laundry tongs, swirling it through the murky grey water...If Mrs Hill had the ruling, and not just the maintenance, of Lydia, the little madam would be obliged to wash her own dirty linen just this once, and see what other people saw of her."

Great writing. Look, I could keep transcribing so you, too, could get a sense of what is in those chamberpots that must be taken down the back stairs, one's face averted, to the 'necessary' house outside, but won't. (Assuming you are also fascinated by the minutiae of upperclass family life in Regency England.) Since I finished my obligatory reading for school last year*, this is one of the books that has made me want to carry it around for a while; to reflect on it in more than a brief summary in my journal. I read this novel quickly and relished it. When I'd finished I wanted to reread it; it's easy to dip back into with its deft, detailed prose.

If you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, even if you've only seen some screen adaptation, you'd enjoy this book.

*A literary life guided, for years, by school reading lists, what's new in YA fiction and vacation reading splurges of books judged by covers is not so bad..

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