Book reaction: Longbourn by Jo Baker

(I’ve noticed lately that, by the time my monthly book round-up arrives, sometimes I’ve forgotten everything I was going to say about a particular title.  This is not necessarily a loss to the world, but I figured, time and energy permitting, I could probably stand to do some individual reactions.)

For some reason, the edition I bought for my Kobo has a much less attractive cover.

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.

There’s been a certain buzz around Jo Baker’s Longbourn for a few months.  The manuscript was the subject of an international bidding war, and the film rights were sold before the book was even released.  I followed all this with great interest, as I’ve been toying for the last few years about retelling Pride & Prejudice from the servants’ point of view, and obviously I was OUTRAGED (for a whole five minutes) that someone else had had the idea, researched and written it while I was still vaguely wondering if early 19th century servants were generally literate.

By the time of release, the only thing holding me back from buying and reading it was money, ie, there’s an electricity bill due soon, and the ebook is $16 in Australia.  Cue a 50% off code for Kobo (sept50, if you’re wondering, valid with most publishers until the end of September), finally it was in my hot little hands.  Or at least my hot little reader.

The best fan fiction, in my opinion, comes from a place of love and affection for the source material, and Baker clearly has that in spades.  Even when the servants’ perspective casts an unflattering light on beloved characters, it’s eminently fair.  And many of those characters who aren’t especially beloved — Mr Collins, for example — get a sympathetic moment.

(I derive a very small level of amusement, however, from describing Longbourn as fan fiction, as it has apparently been elevated above the usual romantically-oriented — ie, feminine and foolish — type of Austen-related novel.  Longbourn is, like, proper literature?  It’s got war scenes and swearing, that’s how you know it’s not just some girly book.  Man, why do I read mainstream reviews?)

As a derivative work, Baker takes the Bennet family and turns them into flesh and blood.  Literally, as Sarah, the heroine, cleans their menstrual cloths.  It’s a truth generally unacknowledged that Lizzy Bennet would have had body hair, sweaty underclothes, all the bits and pieces which, even today, we prefer to shave away and not talk about.

And as an original novel about Sarah confronting the limitations of a servant’s role and striving to find her own path, Longbourn is compelling and really enjoyable.  I read it in a day because I couldn’t stop.  Sarah’s domestic background inform her perceptions in a vivid and fascinating way, and her hunger to learn and see more — without looking down on those who don’t share her ambitions — is enjoyable.

However.  You knew there’d be a however, right?

There comes a point where Baker’s story clashes with Austen’s.  In fandom terms, she’s got her canon confused, and the result is that the entire Bingley family is mischaracterised.

Mr Bingley, right?  He’s new money.  His father made a fortune in trade, and since they’re described as “a respectable family from the north of England”, it has generally been taken that the Bingley fortune came from fabric.  But Austen doesn’t say precisely how the money was made, only that it was through trade, ie, mercantile operations.

Baker suggests that Bingley Sr was the hands-on owner of a sugar plantation somewhere in the Bahamas, a slave-owner who (it is hinted) fathered Ptolemy Bingley, the charming mixed race Netherfield servant who catches Sarah’s eye.

This … does not work for me.  It doesn’t fit what we know about the Bingleys and their source of wealth, not to mention that it’s rather incongruous to suppose that a man may own a plantation, yet still regard himself as a resident of England, and yet didn’t bother to buy property in his home country.

The Darcys, with their much older fortune, make more sense as plantation and slave-owners, although Darcy Sr is so closely associated with Pemberly that it’s hard to imagine him leaving for years at a time.  If the Darcys have plantations in the Americas, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t, they would be overseen by stewards and agents, not the family itself.

This was just a minor frustration — especially since I wasn’t sure if it was a deliberate change to the book, or Baker’s misunderstanding — except that I was also increasingly unhappy about the author’s treatment of Ptolemy.  He starts out as a charismatic presence, being friendly to Sarah and tantalising her with his knowledge of exotic, faraway places (like London).  He has a wry sense of humour and an appealing cynicism when it comes to his employers, and is generally a well-constructed character.

But then … nothing.  Ptolemy is just a vehicle for Sarah to learn more about the world, and then he disappears, returning now and then to share some piece of information that will advance Sarah’s goals.  His ambitions are unrealised, his presence diminished, and ultimately he becomes a token.

I couldn’t help but contrast Ptolemy’s treatment with that of James, the male protagonist/Sarah’s other love interest.  Much is made of the fact that James is an abolitionist (someone in Sleepy Hollow fandom this week described abolitionism as the historical equivalent of “I’m not a racist, but…“).  Late in the novel, following a long, draining, bloodthirsty sequence covering the experiences of British soldiers in Europe, James comes to the realisation that being a volunteer soldier in the army is exactly like slavery.

The problem with ereaders is that it’s really hard to throw a book when it annoys you.  I mean, you can, but instead of a satisfying bang, you just get bits of plastic flying everywhere.  I assume.  I did not actually throw my book, I just facepalmed a bit.

Now, I had really liked James up to this point, and the refreshing way his attitude to the ~love triangle~ was to go, “Well, if Sarah loves Ptolemy, I’ll be sad, I guess, but it’s her decision, and it won’t kill me.”  Yes!  More of that sort of common sense in my fiction, please!  Less of the spurious comparisons to slavery!

With all this, the revelation that Wickham is an actualfax child sex predator was almost by the by.  (But I don’t agree with that characterisation, either.  Underage heiresses aren’t exactly equivalent to pre-pubescent maids.)

Now, I really enjoyed Longbourn.  I cried at the end, and they were tears of “I love this book and the end is so good and I am a happy reader!”  But what has stayed with me since I read it is the mishandling of the race/slavery issues.  I think it’s valuable and important to look at the social issues that form the context of Austen’s novels, but this was badly done.

And I wonder, aside from Mansfield Park, and I do love the revisionist adaptation of 1999, which of Austen’s novels have space for a slavery narrative?  Three centuries from now, will people look back at contemporary novels and wonder why none of the characters think about the sweatshops that made their clothes and electronics?  I don’t fault Baker for trying, and I don’t for a second believe she intended for a tokenistic exploration of slavery and racism, but that was the result, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. 

6 thoughts on “Book reaction: Longbourn by Jo Baker”

  1. Thanks, I’m glad I’m not the only one who found the arc of ptolemy disappointing, and his reinforced ineligibility from everyone including the writer was troubling. I really enjoyed the book’s much more sympathetic treatment of mrs Bennett vs mr Bennett- that was refreshing.

    1. Yes, the treatment of Ptolemy really spoilt an otherwise good book. (I liked Mr and Mrs Bennet, too. I have a soft spot for Mrs B, and he is really quite cruel to her.)

  2. I absolute disagree! Jo Baker fleshed out Ptolemy Bingley JUST enough to let readers know there will be an entire book coming, dedicated to HIS story! And I will be particularly pleased if Sarah, James, Mrs. Hill, Polly, and Longbourne make a showing in the story. I would love to read that, in long, later years, a son or daughter of Sarah and James grows and marries a grown child of Ptolemy’s.

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