Jane Austen’s books – especially Pride and Prejudice – have inspired many sequels. One of the earliest was Sylvia Brinton’s Old friends and new fancies in 1903, and since then they have come quick and fast, up to and beyond 2012’s Death comes to Pemberley, a crime fiction spin-off by P.D. James. It’s understandable: Jane Austen left only six finished novels and a few fragments, and her fans wish she’d lived longer and been able to write more. Unfortunately, the sequels are mostly awful.
A sequel to a well-known work faces two problems. The first is that a classic work of literature is complete in itself. It covers the defining event of the protagonist’s life, whether that’s Frodo destroying the One Ring or Elizabeth Bennet securing a husband. Any other, later, events in their lives are going to seem unimportant and uninteresting by comparison. The other problem is that the classics were written by geniuses, and to borrow their characters and plotlines is to set yourself up for comparison with them. Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a retelling of Pride and prejudice, gets around the first problem by concerning itself not with later events, but the same events, from a different point of view – that of the Bennets’ servants. The second problem remains though: although not a bad writer, Baker is not as good as Austen (not many people are).
Most of the action in Longbourn – around three-quarters – takes place alongside identifiable events from Pride and prejudice, and each chapter is headed by a short quote from P&P. Although P&P is the jumping-off point for the book, Longbourn is defiantly concerned with all the things that Austen didn’t cover: the working classes, sex, violence, war, slavery, mud, blood and bodily fluids. It’s a promising concept, and on occasion deploying these themes in connection with characters we tend to think of us refined and cerebral can produce a delicious jolt of shock, as when the housemaid Sarah muses on the Bennet girls whilst washing their laundry:
“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.”
I have a few issues with this book. One is that it is too didactic, constantly banging-on about how difficult the servants’ lives were, and how their wealthy employers were thoughtless to their needs. I’m aware that some people have a lot of money and others very little, and that this can cause problems and be a Bad Thing. That doesn’t mean I want to be hit around the head with it every few minutes: I prefer social commentary to be more subtle. Baker simply makes all the P&P upper-class characters out to be nasty people. This is not a book for Austen fans who feel genuine affection for her characters, as Baker’s interpretation is that Darcy is an unpleasant man, and Elizabeth’s marriage to him will make her unhappy. In this respect it doesn’t even work as fan fiction.
The second issue that I have with Longbourn is that the P&P connection didn’t add anything. It appeared to be there to grab the attention of the reading public by promising all the titilating bits that Jane Austen left out, without actually delivering any insight. The P&P characters were a bit flat, which is perhaps to be expected as they were not Baker’s own original creation.
If the non-P&P storylines were strong, Longbourn might still have been able to transcend the unsubtle didacticism and the virtually pointless P&P connection. Sadly, the biggest problem of all for me was that I couldn’t get interested in the non-P&P storylines. When you remove the P&P dressing this is basically a dull romance, which is not the kind of book I would normally read. It’s a shame, but I suppose I’ll have to accept that geniuses of Jane Austen’s level are few and far between, and should be valued as such.