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.

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.

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.