Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn is set in the same world as Pride and Prejudice but the story it tells is a very different one. We get to know the “downstairs” in Longbourn but this is not just a “downstairs” story. Longbourn is a story about another side of Pride and Prejudice—another side of Longbourn, another side of Mr. Bennet, another side of the sisters, Hill the housekeeper, and even another side of Mrs. Bennet, and Mr. Collins. There’s a sense of the characters being fleshed out more fully, and of Jo Baker bringing to light another dimension of these well-known characters.

longbourn jo bakerSarah is the heroine in our narrative and is one of the two house maids in the Bennet’s employ. She wonders why anyone would want another human being to be satisfied with the emptying of the chamber pot and the washing of other peoples’ underthings. She wants another life for herself, a life where she wasn’t “so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies.” She doesn’t want a life that’s a facsimile of those she serves; her dreams, her thoughts, her desires are all her own.

Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, is the other star around which Longbourn revolves. She is the one who keeps everything running smoothly. That she has far more sense than Mrs. Bennet is obvious. Contrast Mrs. Bennet’s joy at seeing Lydia married to Mrs. Hill’s reaction: “Mrs. Hill felt at once desperate for her, and furious: what a poor, poor bargain she had made of herself.” Life has given her a short shrift, and yet she finds it within her to be more forgiving of Mrs. Bennet than anyone else perhaps:

She was a wearying, anxious being, was Mrs. B.; she was always so eager to solicit interest in her sufferings. But if her husband had loved her as a husband should—contentedly, generously, and without reserve—would she then have found it necessary to keep on seeking proofs of love, only to keep on being disappointed?

Baker takes Austen’s characters and looks beyond the surface of who they are.

And so, Mr. Collins, instead of being a pompous fool, is shown to be just another nervous young man who’s eager to impress:

Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances natures and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him. And if he did not know the by-laws of the household, it was because nobody had told him; he was expected to intuit them, and then was blamed for his failure.

Baker does this again, and again. She shifts her perspective of the characters ever so slightly that it seems to be in keeping with who they are, and yet, it also presents them in an all new light—some appear more mellow than they originally had, while others make you wince at their casual thoughtlessness (Looking at you Jane, and Lizzie!). This was one of my favorite parts about Longbourn and it really drove home the point that perspective matters a lot in story-telling—change the lens and you might be telling an all together different story.

Longbourn details the drudgery of the life of the servants in the 19th century, and yet at no point did this make for a dismal read. One reason for this is the writing which is really lovely. Baker is a perfect example of a writer who believes in showing rather than telling, and nowhere is this more evident than in Mrs. Hill’s reveries which though emotionally sparse are brimming with meaning.

Here’s another example of what I mean—I love that anger makes Sarah “rearrange” herself:

Sarah was bristling now; she rolled her shoulders, planted her feet, rearranging herself.

And here is James’s discovery of being in love with Sarah (he’s a footman hired by the Bennets, and is the “hero”):

His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes—Netherfield’s being shut up, Ptolemy Bingley’s departure for London—and then bundled into a downhill helter-skelter, through the chances of her happiness, fears for her safety, the dangers of the world beyond, her ignorance of them; and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the room—to arrive at the shock of a full stop: he loved her.

And here’s a description of a noisy metropolis:

Despite her tiredeness, she could not sleep: the noise—the sheer depth of it, layer after layer of sound—cabs rattling along the street in front, drays rumbling down to the docks, cats fighting or mating in the alleyways, the creak of rope from the wharves, a dog barking, a clock, and another clock, and another still more distant clock chiming out hour after hour of the night, into the darkness, as the Gardiners’ housemaid snored oblivious in her bed, and Sarah twisted and turned and tangled herself up in blankets that smelt of someone else.

Last one, of Mrs. Bennet:

Mrs. Bennet was not one to tiptoe around the edges of disaster, with one eye to the abyss and another to her own comportment: she plunged headlong in, and as she fell, took pains to enumerate of the discomfort and the inconveniences of the fall.

Jo Baker’s tale overlaps with Austen’s account of the Bennets but in Baker’s own words, “it inhabits a very different world.” I’m glad that this rendition of that account exists as well.

Emily Eden’s The Semi-Attached Couple

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first. Emily Eden is no Jane Austen, comparisons to her notwithstanding. Jane Austen could tell a story. Emily Eden cannot.

The eponymous couple of The Semi-Attached Couple are Helen, an 18-year-old, sheltered, gently reared, genteel young woman, and Teviot, who marries her at the start of the story.

Their marriage starts with an inauspicious misunderstanding. In fact, misunderstanding characterizes their relationship almost the whole way through. Teviot does not understand Helen and Helen does not understand Teviot. Teviot is jealous of Helen’s love for her family, and Helen is frightened by the intensity of Teviot’s feelings for her.

The Semi-Attached CoupleTheir relationship was the most boring part of the entire novel. They and their relationship was probably a product of their times (the book was written in 1829 though not published until 1860) but really, could they not just have sat down, and had a heart-to-heart to clear up their misconceptions about each other?

If we leave the couple of the the title out of this discussion, then the rest of the stuff is not that bad. In Emily Eden’s own words, The Semi-Attached Couple is a “curious picture of old-fashioned society,” and Eden does seem to have an eye for the going-ons of a certain class of people, and the paraphernalia of their lives.

One of my favorite scenes in the story is the one where Helen, Teviot, and the rest of their friends are guests-of-honor at the opening of a local bridge. Eden infuses the scene with just the right amount of humor as she describes the grandeur of the party’s procession and the cheerful mob that the procession leaves in its wake. She then turns her eye towards the festooning of both the new bridge, and “the mayor and mayoress and their goodly company,” and goes on to regale her readers with a description of the hiccups that the party faces as “the barricade [in front of the bridge] stood firm” as everyone struggled to remove the staves and declare the bridge as officially opened.

The genial air, and the chatty spirit with which the whole scene is sketched makes one feel as if one is reading a letter from an old friend. And this is what makes me want to try out Emily Eden’s collection of letters (rather than her second novel).

There are two characters in the story that I want to talk about.

Lady Portmore’s relentless posturing and maneuvering while wearing is also macabrely funny. Her utter inability to believe that she could be wrong in any sense of the word, and her astonishing dexterity at ushering in any and every situation with a triumphant prescience, no matter which end of the stick she might have been at, so to speak, in the beginning, is a marvel to behold.

Her amazing lack of self-awareness and at-times annoying, and at-times hilarious ability to believe that she’s always had the right of it reminded me of another champion of self-delusion.

michael scott gif

Who else but the one and only Michael Scott?

And of course, in my hunt for the perfect Michael Scott gif, I came across another quote which I heartily wish to fling at Lady Portmore:

Oh god. You’re awful. And you don’t even know how awful you are.

~ The Good Wife

Mrs. Douglas on the other hand is a nice mix of disdain and scorn, whose persecutions very naturally do not extend to her own family members—a sign of humanness that makes her slightly (but just) less annoying than Mrs. Portmore. For the general public however, her persnicketiness is steady, and never-ending, ready to be doled out at a moment’s notice. So great is her prowess that even when “in imminent peril of being forced to praise, [she] escaped with great adroitness.”

Let me end with this marvelous gossipy bit:

Never was the congregation so alert in standing up at the proper opportunities. Old Mr. Marlow, a martyr to the rheumatic gout, and Mrs. Greenland, who had, for two years, made her stiff knee an excuse for sitting down during the whole of the service, were both on their legs before the psalm was given out. The clerk, who had a passion for his own singing, saw his advantages, and gave out five verses of a hymn, with repetition of the last two lines of each verse. Seven verses and a half! But nobody thought it a note too long. . . .

It was a most satisfactory Sunday; and as most of them were addicted to the immoral practice of Sunday letter-writing, the observations of the morning were reduced to writing in the evening, and sent off to various parts of England on Monday morning.

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Synopsis: “Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.”

I had had Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey on my TBR for the longest time so I was really glad when I was finally able to get my hands on it. Imagine my dismay then when I found myself dragging my feet (so to say) through the story, wanting to scream at the main protagonists and trying to forage through the happenings to get to the meat of an actual story. I know! I know! The book has not been publicized as anything but a “novel of manners” and a take on Jane Austen and I have absolutely no problem with that. I enjoy romance and some of my favourite books are what I call “quiet books,” books that are not so much about big action and jaw-dropping plot developments as about the story being revealed through the everyday experience of its characters.

But hey if you’re going to market your book as a “Jane Austen-anything” then you better have that first part down pat. The problem is Shades of Milk and Honey has all the fluff of Pride and Prejudice but none of its substance.

The comparison between Shades of Milk and Honey and Jane Austen’s books holds on surface—regency era, preoccupation with getting the girls married off, protected young damsels with a whiff of scandal in their pasts, an older mature woo-er versus a young, dashing beau with the possibility of some evilness lurking in his character—but what makes Pride and Prejudice work is that it’s not just a story about two protagonists who find love; it’s a story about how those protagonists find love and why they find it the way they do. The process of reaching their happily-ever-after is rich, complex and nuanced enough to furnish a good story.

With Shades of Milk and Honey the underlying story is just not engaging enough. Moreover, the havey-cavey way in which the main leads’ coming together is achieved left me vastly dissatisfied. The change of heart that Jane undergoes right at the end of the novel was hard to believe. It made me question the constancy of her character and her judgment. All this compounded with certain awkward phrasings, especially at the beginning of the book, and phrasings that jarred me right out of the story made Shades of Milk and Honey a ho-hum experience at best.

Perhaps I am being too harsh – I profess to not really warming up to either Jane or her twaddle of a sister, Melody. Or to Vincent either now that I think of it. (Vincent is the ‘hero’)

The thing that I did enjoy the most and that I wish had received more airtime was Miss Kowal’s imagining and descriptions of glamour—magic that the upper class uses to beautify their homes and awe their guests with. Yes, Shades of Milk and Honey is supposed to be “the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen… if she had lived in a world with magic.” What I would like to see in her future books is how this magic shapes up the lives of women who practice it and the society that they live in. I want to read about the history of glamour, about men working in a profession that comes across as womanly and all the bells and whistles that Miss Kowal has imagined as a template for the framework of her magic.

And that perhaps may well be the reason why I might try out the second book in the series. To see if she indeed does expand on glamour in the subsequent books. That and the fact that from what I read about her, Miss Kowal seems likeable enough and so I am willing to try her once more before I give up on her books.

Bill Bryson, Louise Penny, E-readers and Jane Austen

Made in America by Bill Bryson

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was a lothario – an excellent ‘natural philosopher’ and a successful businessman of course but a regular lothario as well?

Or that a doctor was called a ‘pisspot’ and a footman a ‘fartcatcher’ in the eighteenth century?

Made in America is my first introduction to Bill Bryson. Truth be told it’s not even my copy – my husband got it for himself but I called dibs on it as soon as I saw it having heard such praises for Mr. Bryson from Mr. Husband. My morning commute is now devoted to Made in America and I have been progressing more or less at the rate of a chapter a day.

Made in America is an exploration of the origins and oddities of American English. As Mr. Bryson points out in his introduction, these explorations would be incomplete without the historical context that led to the genesis of these words and phrases, and indeed the historical anecdotes that surround the word in question and that form such an integral part of Mr. Bryson’s storytelling makes the book a fascinating read.

If I were to think of it I would assume history to be portentous, eliciting a sort of awe and bemusement. I would certainly not expect it to have an everyday-ordinariness. Or imagine that the origin-of-all-things (ok, words in this case) could have funny overtones to it. But that is precisely the feeling that I get reading Mr. Bryson. He has a gift for taking what one would assume would be banal and boring and making it interesting and fun.

For instance, did you know that the constitution of the United States of America owes its existence to the Oyster Wars – yes, a war between fishermen over the shell-shaped, staid-looking creature? Or that we can give thanks for Daylight Savings Time to a businessman who really just wanted more hours for playing golf?

This is my first time reading any sort of historical non-fiction and I am wondering how much of my enjoyment stems from the actual history and how much from Mr. Bryson’s skills as a writer.

With a keen eye for adjectives, Mr. Bryson seems to be a virtuoso at using simple, ordinary words to paint highly vivid and at times amusing images.

On the early colonists borrowing words from the Indians: “Most Indian terms, however, were not so amenable to simple transliteration. Many had to be brusquely and repeatedly pummelled into shape, like a recalcitrant pillow, before any English speaker could feel comfortable with them.”

On American English slowly assuming its own identity: “Partly from the lack of daily contact with the British, partly from conditions peculiar to American life, and partly perhaps from whim, American English soon began wandering off in new directions.”

~*~

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery, the latest in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec series, is the other book I’m currently busy with. This is my first introduction to Louise Penny and to crime fiction in general (my only other foray in recent times was The Faithful Place by Tana French – a novel I liked).

As with Miss French I find myself fascinated more with the characters than the plot. Indeed I have a suspicion that Miss Penny means it to be so. The Chief Inspector’s claim that a murder is really just the tipping point – a culmination of the thousands of small hurts and disagreements that began much earlier than the actual act of murder – makes me even more interested in the characters – who they are, their motivations, their ambitions – than in the plot that is unfolding.

I am inclined to think that in learning more about the individual, I will come to know more about the murder. Or that is what Miss Penny seems to be nudging me to think!

Update Feb 1, 2013: I’m now half-way through the book and the plot is thickening; the characters are more fleshed out; the fog around enimities and back-stories is slowly dissolving. In all, the book is becoming un-putdownable!

~*~

The Argument for Books— ‘Heavy, Smelly, Cumbersome, Perfect Bound Books’ –  pushes across a point that at times seems to me a big justification for physical books – that “Books are a nexus”. Reading is a solitary experience and the advent of e-readers has made it more so. “Heavy, smelly, cumbersome books” through book stores and libraries and the passing of one copy from one generation to another makes the reading experience more communal.

I love and enjoy my Kindle hugely; however, I am NOT in favour of a completely paperless world. I see value in having BOTH paper and e-books and I most certainly do not want e-books to obliterate paper books.

I also wonder at the slightly fanatical tone that seems to tinge both the camps in any discussion on this issue.

I’m also thinking about Litlove’s recent comment that, “The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading.”

What do you think?

~*~

In other news, 28th January was the 200th birthday of Pride & Prejudice!

Here’s a great article in LA Review: Pride & Prejudice Forever – I am tempted to look up the Patricia Meyer Spacks edition. I would love a critical reading of Pride & Prejudice with an understanding of the historical and political context in which Jane Austen wrote it.

And if you haven’t  yet you should check out The Lizze Bennet Diaries once. They’re fun!

a reading meme

Found this wonderful meme over at Litlove’s and wanted to give it a whirl!

The Book I’m Reading

Jo Walton’s ‘Among Others’ – universally good reviews plus a 2011 Nebula followed by a 2012 Hugo clinched the deal. This was, however, a month ago. At the time that I started Among Others I also embarked upon Francis Lymond’s 10 year journey with Dorothy Dunnett little realizing that I would be dead to everything else till I finished the six part series. Of course, once I finished the series I was left gasping for breath and had to breathe in a lung-full of something sweet, something light. Once THAT was over with as well I could finally settle into Among Others.

Among Others is a fantasy unlike others in that the story’s not choc a bloc with fantastical creatures and other-worldly happenings. In fact now that I think of it the story’s touched more by an air of mystery than fantasy – the event that triggered Morganna’s current life situation are never fully revealed (Morganna is the 15 year old socially awkward bibliophile who narrates the story). Her mother is hinted at being literally evil but we do not really hear from her or of her other than Morganna’s oblique references. The secondary characters especially Wim and Morganna’s paternal relations, grandfather Sam and her father’s three sisters, all portend trouble – of things coming to a head in the second half of the novel where all these secondary characters are going to become important. And of course writing the above just made me realize that Miss Walton has definitely succeeded in imbuing her story with a certain atmosphere – a thick pall of rain and thunder and storm is what I would associate the story with. I’ll come back to this once I’m done with the whole novel.

The Last Book I Read

Pride & Prejudice – Ahh, I loved this re-reading so much. Sort of like soaking in the warmth of the sun after a particularly chilly night. The romance between Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was delightful. So too was the ridiculousness of the haughty Lady Catherine and the obsequious Mr. Collins. I appreciate the fact that while from my 21st century perspective I find these characters a tad unrealistic and tending to be a little caricature-like they probably have their grounding in the norms that were prevalent in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Of course each character could also be held up as a template of a certain type of individual that remains as true in the 21st century as it probably was in Miss Austen’s times – Mrs. Bennett and Lydia Bennett, the fluffy heads with nary a care except all that would be judged by the social barometer; Jane Bennett and Charles Bingley who seem naïve and too-good-to-be-true with the sweetness of their tempers and kindness of their dispositions; Mr. Bennett who seeks solace and amusement in his books and the absurdities of life as his coping mechanism for the choice he made in marrying Mrs. Bennett; and last but not the least Elizabeth and Darcy who in the surety of their opinions and in the blend of a certain selfishness and caring affection towards their family members and friends are perhaps the most easily relatable. I have to admit that I would not mind reading Pride & Prejudice in a proper classroom setting with a rigorous analysis of the novel as well as of the context in which Miss Austen wrote this much beloved work.

The Book I’ll Read Next

Ahh, all the contenders have been swept aside by the release of Karen Marie Moning’s next installment in the Fever world series – Iced.  I am a fan of Miss Moning’s packs-a-punch storytelling where half the world’s population is dead and the other half is busy cavorting ‘in the Faerie’. I came to the Fever series late which was odd considering that I was a big fan of her Highlander romances. However, once begun I could not put the books down – a heavy dose of paranormal elements crossed with alpha-male-hunkiness dunked in a world of non-whimpering females who can kick some major ass is as good a pleasure-read as it gets. Why these would not be the epitome of comfort-read is something that I might need to explore in another post; for the time being for a thoroughly enjoyable bout of pleasure reading I’d most certainly recommend the Fever series.

The Last Book I Bought

My last purchase was actually last night – Persuasion from the Kindle store since after re-reading Pride & Prejudice I want to go through all of Miss Austen’s works again.

The Last Book I Was Given

It’s been a while since I was given a book. I think the last one was a collection of poetry edited by Edward Hirsch. I love what I call ‘Poetry of the Everyday’ and I distinctly remember this collection featuring several of those kind… perhaps it’s time for a re-read. Speaking of poetry, I love the sort written by David Whyte, Billy Collins, Jane Hirschfield and Mary Oliver – they remind me of the joy and the poetry lurking in the interstices of life. And writing this brings the forceful realization that it’s been a really long while since I read any. I think one of my next purchases is going to be a book of poems!

Pride and Prejudice and the Search for Perfect Comfort Reads

I’ve been bouncing from Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series to a few books from the romance genre to Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April to Pride & Prejudice in the search of a comfort read which I can slip into effortlessly and wrap myself in. In Pride & Prejudice my search has finally come to a rest.

I’ve been thinking over what it is about Miss Austen’s well-loved work which clicked for me right now. Every reason that I can think of seems to stem from the familiarity with the story – the knowledge of how things turn out. As long as I do not know how it all unfolds I am beset with a sort of anxiety, a sort of nervousness that ensures that the bulk of my focus is on discovering how it all ends – Will the characters find eventual happiness? Will they have wizened up to the deviousness of that particular character? Will he live or will he die? Will he grow to love and accept her? Will she learn to speak up for herself? As long as these questions hold my interest everything else is sort of like the scenery you pass by when travelling in a train – you spy an interesting sight that you’d like to explore more but are helpless in the face of the onward tumble into the journey.

However, this time around with the knowledge that Miss Bennett most assuredly finds her happily-ever-after and with the knowledge of the general lay of the land I am finding myself enjoying each and every word that Miss Austen has written much more. I am making new discoveries – that while Pride & Prejudice could certainly be held as the original exemplar of romance novels it’s also quite a bit of a satire on the times that Miss Austen lived in; that Miss Bennett is a bit of a nitwit and perhaps not as picture perfect as I’d previously thought; that Mr. Collins is really delightfully ridiculous. This re-reading that I’m in the midst of is resulting in a deeper delving into the characters and that is one aspect that I am enjoying hugely. Mr Bennett seems somewhat callous in his utter indifference to his wife; Mr. Wickham’s earnestness and eagerness in sharing his past and blackening Mr Darcy so readily, his immediate latching onto Miss King as soon as she inherits – all seem a bit suspect and seem to be a clear and early signal of his unsavory character.

And yet if it was the element of familiarity that is contributing so much to my enjoyment and consequent labeling of Pride & Prejudice as a perfect comfort read then I’m compelled to think that this would be true of genre reading too. Genres with their tropes and elements that are constant across stories would afford that same familiarity with the promise of a new packaging. One would not have to confront the anxiety of uncertainty. All the energy could be focused on the way the character is developed or the lyrical quality of the text or the bigger themes being discussed in the novel or any of the other elements which go into developing a story.

The only genre I can speak with any sort of authority is the romance genre – having read quite a few stories over the course of the past few years. And yet, as I think back over my recent reading experiences of the romance genre I find the above anything but true. I find myself becoming increasingly impatient with the tropes – the hero who values his freedom too much for a commitment, the happy sparkly girl who captures our brooding hero’s heart, the heroine who quietly loves the hero from a distance and continues being his best friend while the hero potters around and takes the length of a book to realize he actually loves her too – and so on and so forth. I am besieged with the desire to yell at all of them and to tell them Enough-Already! Get a life! I’ve been prepared to be enchanted and yet the magic of Eloisa James, Carla Kelly and Susan Elizabeth Phillips have failed to work this time around. Perhaps, that is the subject for another post. In this one, I am just thinking that perhaps at certain times genre-reading could fail to exercise its usual charm and magic.

Familiarity of course is just one element of a comfort read. I think I’ll continue using Pride & Prejudice to discover the other elements that constitute a perfect one.

In the meanwhile I’d love to know your favourite comfort reads. And also your experiences with genre reading and how well (or not) you think it lends itself to comfort reads.