I’ve recently finished reading Longbourn, Jo Baker’s take on the lives of the servants waiting on the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice.
Longbourn focuses on Sarah, a contemporary of Lizzie and Jane and their maid. She’s a girl who wants for more, but at times fails to conceptualize what the more that she wants is. She’s blessed and limited with more freedom and fewer opportunities than Lizzie–if she’s caught alone with a man, even kissing a man, her life and prospects aren’t ruined. But of course, this is because she has limited prospects–she dreads what seems to be an inevitable future filled with the backbreaking care for others. The book suggests that despite class, a pretty girl won’t want for romantic suitors–like Lizzie, Sarah is pursued by two men. James is a footman at Longbourn who withholds any and all information about his past, Ptolemy is Bingley’s footman who charms her and promises a future beyond servitude.
Lost in Austen is a 2008 ITV miniseries about a Pride and Prejudice superfan who is transported into the start of the novel, through a magic cupboard in her apartment, switching places with Elizabeth Bennet who is transported to modern day London. I know it sounds stupid–bear with me. Tired of both her modern life and defending her love of P&P to her friends and family, Amanda Price is nether the less not pleased to find herself in Longbourn at the point in which Neitherfield Hall is let at last. She’s out of cigarettes and despite her best efforts to enjoy herself, she cocks up everything at every turn. Halfway through her stay she finds herself engaged to Mr. Collins–yet somehow, things proceed to get even worse.
Longbourn is very good and Lost in Austen is fun, and neither hold a candle to Death Comes to Pemberly (the novel, not the disappointing miniseries). But instead of writing a review, I want to explore two things that stood out to me–the exploration of the secret histories of secondary characters, and the impulse to justify a love of Jane Austen.
I’ve mentioned to Coco and Bri that one of my favorite quotes is by Mark Twain, who at one point said “I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” I love this quote because it is so often invoked by people wanting to ally themselves with the man from Hannibal in an unexamined hatred of Austen, missing the key ‘every time’. I hate Jonathan Franzen, so I avoid his work. I strongly doubt, as do others, that Twain’s dislike of Austen was a 19th century version of hatewatching. But simple people like to use quotes to align themselves with intelligent people, and therefore the patriarchical dismissal of Austen continues, likely much to the delight of Jonathan Franzen. I bring this up because one of the major themes of Lost in Austen is how Amanda justifies her love for Pride and Prejudice. To her friends and family she says it’s because she loves the manors and beauty and propriety of Austen’s books, compared to the world she inhabits, where she pushes papers at a bank and is proposed to with a beer can tab by a belching boyfriend. But later she admits to Darcy that in every man she’s dated she’s looked for him, and loved him since she was a teen.
But, can’t a woman just appreciate Austen’s lively prose, conservatively yet richly drawn characters, and timeless wit? Why does a love for female authors have to stem from romantic delusions, Jonathan Franzen? Isn’t that some sexist bullshit?!? P.G. Woodhose’s works are smart yet flippant and frothy. Yet nobody scoffs when Hugh Laurie said that reading his novels saved his life. But imagine the derision in some corners of the internet if a female actress had claimed that reading Austen had helped her combat her depression…
Lost in Austen also steals from the tired trope of the delusional and slightly pathetic ‘Janiac’–the woman who has no social life and skills and can lives to sit on her couch rereading Austen with cat and tea nearby. Coco and I have discussed our irritation with this stereotype, best exemplified by the film Austenland.
(I never saw the film. I’m judging it based on first impressions*)
I suppose giving characters additional biographical details or taking them on adventures beyond the scope of the original work isn’t revolutionary–fanfiction and J.K. Rowling taken advantage of the internet and copyright laws to do both. Some fanfiction is very good, some is very bad, most is porn.
I found it curious the characters both works chose to expand. First, neither is particularly interested in expanding on Mrs. Bennet. I can’t think of a single production where the character moves very far beyond ‘shrill’–in the 2005 version she got a good line in, putting Lizzie in her place with “when you have five daughters, Lizzie, tell me what else will occupy your thoughts, and then perhaps you will understand.” She’s a character who is, yes, annyoing, and tempting to camp-up when acted out. But much like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she is not written to be one-dimensional, and enough hints are laid in Pride to suggest an inner struggle, so I guess my question to you, dear reader, is why has no one yet taken the bait? In both works, however, Mr. Bennet is expanded upon–in Lost in Austen he’s given a first name, Claude, made all the more loveable, and given a sword fight. Lost in Austen also somewhat flips the characters of Bingley and Wickham–Bingley gets a drinking problem and runs off with Lydia (though it’s due to his love of Jane and therefor forgivable (?) and not foreboding(?) when he and Jane reunite at the end of the movie) and Wickham becomes the not-without-a-heart misunderstood bad boy. My favorite two character alterations, however, lay with the ladies. Georgiana Darcy is made slightly insane and the pursuer of Wickham, which doesn’t work flawlessly but at least gives her some agency. What does work is the reveal that Caroline Bingley is ‘an admirer of Sappho’ which goes a great way to explain the tone of her flirtations with Darcy and her aggression toward the world at large.
Longbourn only takes two leaps with character backstories, but they’re notable. First, Wickham makes numerous advances on an 11-year-old maid in service to the Bennets. I’m not sure how I feel about this angle of the story–it gave me no further understanding of the characters or the world either Austen or Baker created. It was deeply unsettling, naturally, but almost seemed like an additional revision added to a later draft of Longbourn to ‘grit things up’. It’s not that it’s a horrible addition, it’s simply that I don’t understand the author’s impulse to further make evil a villain of the story, when other characters could stand for some further complications The other revelation is that Mr. Bennet had a relationship with the servant Mrs Hill, who gave birth to an illegitimate son. Mr. Bennet, while not a monster, promises Hill he’d marry her before sleeping with her, and for the following 20 years strikes a balance between affection, derision, and disregard that comes across as emotional abuse. At the end of the novel, Mrs. Hill, reading to an increasingly sickly and blind Mr. Bennet in his library, reflects that if he had carried through with is promise of marrying her after she gave birth to his son, they’d have ended up in the exact same situation–she’d be his wife, they never would have worried about the entail of Longbourn, but she’d still be sitting in the library, reading aloud a novel to the blind man she’s loved all her life. It’s a moment that makes me sadder the more I think about it.
OK, I”m getting rambly, and when I started writing this I though I’d have more to say than I do. Longbourn is good, and you should read it. Lost in Austen in fun, and you should watch it.
*Get it? Get it?
Yeah, you get it.