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Thursday, August 6, 2015

LONGBOURN by the Apron Strings (a review)

I'm always on the hunt for fresh takes on Austen books. I have to say the playing field is about level between decent and pathetic. I've never found an Austen-ic book of her exquisite quality before, though some come close.

Recently I read LONGBOURN by Jo Baker. Because of a few problems, I have filed it in about the middle of the pack.

Pluses:

+This is Pride and Prejudice told from a servant's point of view.
+I enjoy the fresh take on the story. It's like looking at one of Queen Elizabeth's massive court dresses from the inside. Interesting.
+Hearing how the lower half lived and worked made me glad to be a modern woman with real choices. I'm more grateful for modern medicines and creams.
+I enjoyed knowing the otherwise invisible servant's thoughts and dreams and hopes.  I wanted to see things work out well for her. I wanted her to be able to find her love, get married, and have children.
+The book answered the same questions often running through my mind when I thought about Elizabeth's hems dragging 6 inches deep in mud or who would watch the children when the little nieces and nephews came to visit.
+The book was well-written and nicely edited.

Minuses:

--It's a very democratic, modern treatment. Jane didn't really concern herself with the below stairs people at all--nor did many of that time, Dickens excepting. We hear of the rich and the nearly rich. Servants were to be seen and not heard.
--There were several modern topics which took me completely out of the story because they were topics Austen would NEVER have broached (homosexuality, graphic violence, illegitimacy, and sex to name a few). I'm not saying the sex was discussed graphically, but the mention was there, as it was not in Austen.
--There was some bad language.  There is a way to write  without resorting to swearing because Jane herself did it, and I have done it, as have many other authors. It isn't needed. We have extremely well-developed imaginations when it comes to inserting bad language.
--At times I found myself echoing Jemima Rooper in LOST IN AUSTEN when she says, "Jane Austen would have been surprised to know she had written that."
--I felt at the end of the book Jo gave up on the story. She nearly flung Sarah down the road to hunt for James and catapulted them both back, as if the story was now in the point of view of someone else altogether. And she shows up with a baby. Where's the rest of the story, my friend?

I think one reason Austen never wrote about servants is that they are on the bottom of the social pond. There is very little lateral for bobbing around, down on the bottom. The Bennets are closer to the middle. They can marry up. They can make mistakes (such as Lydia's) which sink them to the bottom. It's a much more dynamic story.
Jo tells a story based on someone who really couldn't have married much further up without causing a massive scandal. And there isn't very far Sarah can fall, either.

For me, the language and adult themes really battered the story. I'm sure Ms. Baker could have found a way to introduce interest into her work without them, if her aim had truly been to .

My grade? A solid three out of five bonnets.

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