I can’t believe I’ve had this on my shelf for as long as I have. It’s been almost TWO YEARS since I bought it. TWO YEARS! I’m not sure I would go so far as to say this is THE pinnacle of Jane Austen fan-fiction, but it’s pretty close.
I say this for a couple of reasons the primary being that Baker didn’t deviate too far from Austen’s characters, she stayed true to them and only played with the background characters (they’re less than minor) and filled in their back stories. The secondary reason I say this is because it received reviews in the major publications and was fairly mainstream for Austen fan-fiction/inspired fiction. I mean sure you’ve got the major adaptations like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless, but those are both modern adaptations.
Baker takes the familiar Pride and Prejudice (reviewed here, here, and here) and fills in the shadows. She took the smallest of hints and the most throw away of comments by Austen and turned them into this lovely story of the working class during Austen’s Regency.
I specifically chose the word shadows because of this passage,
“Because, she thought, as she fixed the pails to the yoke, ducked into it, and staggered upright, really no one should have to deal with another person’s dirty linen. The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were. Perhaps that was why the spoke instructions at her from behind an embroidery hoop or over the top of a book: she had scrubbed away their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood; she knew they weren’t as rarefied as angels , and so they just couldn’t look her in the eye.” (4)
In choosing the working class to portray her story, Baker gives the reader a lot of the dirty details that doesn’t exist in the original text. She also puts Austen’s characters into their place giving even the most relatable characters like Lizzie and Mr. Bennet the haughtiness they would have with the working class, but not necessarily with their peers or betters. As perfect as Austen wrote her characters, there were a dozen or more characters (aka servants) working to make them so.
What Baker really excelled at was taking the minutest of details and turning them into entire scenes or characters. The character of James Smith is from a one time passing reference to an unnamed footman in the Bennet’s household. Where is this creativity coming from!? The entire James Smith story line shatters Austen’s story, while simultaneously keeping it alive and perfect. I’m leaving it at that. Another example is the passing mention of a cross dressing officer which Baker shares from a servants perspective,
“The uproar built and grew all evening, until it sounded as though it was perfect Bedlam in the colonel’s rooms. Someone should call the constable, or rustle up a magistrate to read the riot act. It grew very late—the town clock chimed one, and then the quarter hour, and then the half. And then, when the party finally broke up just after two, a young man came sauntering forth, tricked out in a lady’s gown and cap, with rouged lips and cheeks, and with uniformed officers draped on either arm. The boy flounced off down the street to catcalls, batting off the straying hands of his fellow officers. Lydia and Kitty watched this little show, hands pressed to their sides, helpless with laughter.” (199-200)
Where Baker took her own turn, that I really appreciated, was the addition of a homosexual character. I chose that word specifically as gay/LGBT+ is a modern socio-political identity that was not around during Austen’s time, but based on at least two if not more non-judgmental references to homosexuals (real or fictional) during her own lifetime I have to think Austen would appreciate the addition. I felt Baker treated the character with respect and the reasons behind the marriage of convenience and the interactions with other characters was perfectly done. I didn’t quite shed a tear at the end, but I came close.
“Mr. Hill died, as he had been promised that he would, at Longbourn—and died as he would have wished to, in the embrace of his lover, a hard-handed labourer of middle years from the next farm along. This man, wordless with shock and sorrow, brought Mrs. Hill to their trysting place in the little wilderness to the side of the lawns. There, between them, they managed to get Mr. Hill’s britches back on. They both wept, and Mrs. Hill rubbed the grieving fellow’s back and did her best to comfort him. They carried the old body back up to the house, and all the way to the attic, and laid him in his marriage bed, so that he might die as respectably as he had lived, and with the lie intact.” (326)
This addition pre-dated Lyndsay Faye’s well done inclusion of a homosexual character in Jane Steele, but because I read it first this one reminded me of it.
I could write an entire separate post about the main character Sarah, who is ahead of her time when it comes to expectations of the roles of servants and the roles of women, and who takes her own fate into her hand to get what she wants and desires, but I won’t. You should go read it if you’re at all intrigued by what I’ve written.
Recommendation: YES YES YES! Whether you’re a die-hard Austenite or just someone who enjoys historical fiction, this book has something for you. Even if you’ve only ever heard of Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennet you’ll recognize characters in this. From a historical fiction perspective this reminded me a good bit of Emma Donaghue’s Slammerkin and the only other fan-fiction I can really compare it to in terms of success and literary acclaim is Wide Sargasso Sea, a nod to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which I still haven’t read, but I bought at the same time! Guess I’m ticking that off my list in 2019.
Opening Line: “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.”
Closing Line: “Together, they strode down the Lane to Longbourn.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)
Additional Quotes from Longbourn
“Jane, well, she sat nicely, and smiled, and she listened with her head tilted, and replied politely when spoken to, and she always seemed quietly pleased to be spoken to, and to dance if she was asked to dance.” (22)
“Elizabeth. She was a different, much more active, creature, when it came to dealing with gentlemen.” (22)
“Lydia and Kitty—whom Sarah sometimes struggled to think of as two separate persons, but saw instead as one collective creature of four limbs, two heads, and a bundle of frocks and ribbons—Kitty and Lydia always had a hum of men around them.” (22)
“She could not model herself on Mary, either; she was unfledged still, a shabby nestling, her plumage not yet grown.” (23)
“He had been concerned for her; that was all. No one here seemed to have any real notion of the world. This was innocence as deep and dangerous as a quarry-pit. He, though, he knew. He knew that men were capable of many things, and had come to believe, indeed, that some men were not really men at all, for all that they walked and talked and prayed and ate and slept and dressed themselves like men. Give them just time and opportunity enough, and they’d reveal themselves to be cold creatures with strange appetites, who did not care what harm they did in satisfying them.” (82)
“Sarah, being in many ways a practical person, had known all along that she was working with insufficient information. That one kiss, deep in drink, with Ptolemy, was all she had to go on: it had not been very nice, but she simply could not know if that was what kisses were generally like, or if it was just that particular kiss, or that kisser. she could not know whether what she had felt—dizzy, her pride gratified, her body uncomfortable—about Tol Bingley amounted to love, or even anything very much at all. And here was James, now, with his hand wrapped around her arm, and his touch and his closeness and his voice pitched low and urgent, and it all seemed to matter, and it was all doing strange and pleasant things to her. She felt herself softening, and easing, like a cat luxuriating in a fire’s glow. And there was just now, just this one moment, when she teetered on the brink between the world she’s always known and the world beyond, and if she did not act now, then she would never know.” (150-151)
“Sara wondered what it could be like, to live like this—life as a country dance, where everything is lovely, and graceful, and ordered, and every single turn is preordained, and not a foot may be set outside the measure. Not like Sarah’s own out-in-all-weathers haul and trudge, the wind howling and blustery, the creeping flowers in hedgerows, the sudden sunshine.” (182)
“Live was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually, failed.” (269)
“People said that Mr. Darcy was marrying down, but Sarah could not see it that way at all. It all seemed to work out neatly, like the columns in a well-kept ledger: his wealth, property and standing were equal to, and offered in straightforward payment for, her loveliness. When you considered it like that, he did not stoop in marrying her at all. And when you considered it like that, it was no wonder to Sarah that she had nobody.” (303)