Tag Archives: Pride and Prejudice

‘Longbourn’ by Jo Baker

Longbourn

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.

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‘Darkness at Pemberley’ by T.H. White

Darkness at Pemberley photoThis book is utterly bizarre.

First published in 1932, it begins as a standard murder mystery set in a (fictional) Cambridge college. Two deaths occur in one night at the University: a much-disliked senior don, and a young, seemingly innocent and ordinary undergraduate. The obvious conclusion seems to be that the don murdered the undergraduate and then committed suicide. However, in the time-honoured tradition of crime fiction, the detective called in to investigate thinks there is more to the situation than meets the eye …

For 100 pages this story pretty much sticks to the conventions of college crime fiction, then suddenly the murderer is revealed, along with their motive and method. So we know who committed the crime, why and how: what on earth is the rest of the story going to be about? This is where it gets truly original. For instead of being a simple mystery puzzle, it abruptly becomes a thriller featuring the descendents of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth née Bennet. Yes, really. The descendents of the hero and heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Hence the ‘Pemblerley’ of the title, as the rest of the book is set in the Darcy stately home in Derbyshire. The Pride and Prejudice reference is not exactly central to the plot; it seems White just liked the idea. And why not?

On top of college mystery + thriller + Pride and Prejudice spinoff is another key element: humour. It percolates through the novel and somehow makes the whole crazy hybrid work. It’s particularly noticeable in the scene where the Darcys’ butler, Kingdom, keeps guard in the hall of Pemberley while a search for the hidden murderer is on. The passage is both atmospheric and (intentionally) comic:

Meanwhile darkness had fallen. Kingdom had stood alone in the gathering dusk of the old house whilst the great hall sank about him imperceptibly through waves and waves of gloom. The invisibility welled up from the distant corners and sank downwards from the domed ceiling, gradually stealing its last glints from the chandelier. At last only the silent ghost of a white moustache hung suspended in the night.

As if all this weren’t enough of a head-mess, the characters also have a rather meta habit of referring to crime fiction. At one point, Inspector Buller is able to get himself out of a tricky situation because of knowledge gained from reading a lot of crime novels. In another scene, Buller and the Darcys are discussing the murderer’s actions. The Darcys cannot understand why the murderer is acting in a certain way. Impatiently, Inspector Buller replies:

“You can’t argue normally, or there wouldn’t be any murders at all. But there are murders. We shall just have to pretend we’re in a detective story.”

The ‘college mystery’ element is neat: mad as a box of frogs, as most of the genre is, but clever and well thought out. As a thriller, it’s not the best. The criminal is a pantomime villain, possessing almost supernatural powers, and being unrepentantly evil. It’s not as emotionally intense as a psychological thriller such as the best of Daphne du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith, and doesn’t have as fast-paced or twisted a plot as, for example, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. But as a whole it’s a hugely entertaining and highly original oddity. I am now even more keen to re-read White’s most famous work, The sword in the stone.