Here is my review of Longbourn by Jo Baker
Published in paperback by Black Swan January 2014
‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’
As much as I have always liked the sharp wit of Austen, I’ve always preferred the brooding darkness of Hardy. Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t like both sharp wit and brooding darkness, and so maybe this tension is what drew me in so completely to Longbourn.
Longbourn is the story of the servants of the Bennet family who we all know from Pride and Prejudice. This retelling of a classic novel, loved the world over, is not fan fiction or gimmicky. Instead, Longbourn offers us an alternative viewpoint of life in Austen’s England – a country built up on the proceeds of trading, slavery, and empire. A country full of poverty, cruelty, and drudgery.
Baker shows us the relentless hard work of life downstairs – the early starts, the fetching of slop buckets, the laundry of five young women. The chilblains, the raw hands, the lice. But more importantly she shows us that these barely mentioned servants of Austen’s original, they too have hopes and dreams. They too face an uncertain future as Mr Bennet has no legitimate male heir. They must impress Mr Collins with their housekeeping, cooking, laundering, cleaning, serving, butlering, footkeeping…
Most of the time we are in the viewpoint of the maidservant, Sarah. She has been in the Bennet household since she was orphaned aged six. She has a dry sense of humour though must keep these thoughts to herself as her status does not allow her to share opinions. Better not to have opinions. Better to keep your head down and learn the satisfaction of a job well done. But Sarah knows there are other worlds beyond the narrow one she inhabits. For Sarah is lent books from Elizabeth Bennet.
Mrs Hill – the cook and housekeeper – is like a mother to Sarah though she is tough from a lifetime of servitude. She also harbours a secret thatflips our view of the family upstairs and accounts for Mrs Bennet’s ‘nerves’. Mr Hill, the butler, is a gruff older man but even he is given a backstory that makes you grateful you were not alive at this time. The youngest member of this downstairs ‘family’ is Polly, another young girl who Sarah takes under her wing, allowing her moments of childhood where she can wander off and play.
And then enters the footman with a mysterious past, James Smith. I warmed to James, his gentleness and love of horses, the way he looks out for Sarah and Polly, the quiet taking on of chores, the tough life he has previously led. And this is where Longbourn becomes a creation in its own right and not a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice. When the characters are not confined within the village of Longbourn, when they are out in the wider world, we see the realities of what it was like during the Napoleonic Wars, when you were subject to your superiors, half-starving, beaten, flogged. When you had to survive on your wits.
Baker is in great control of her craft as a writer and reader. She uses Austen’s famous free indirect speech, to give us her characters’ thoughts. Like Austen with Lizzy, Baker’s main focus is on Sarah. But she too switches viewpoints from time to time to give us information that Sarah couldn’t know.When the narrative takes us away from the village of Longbourn, the writing too becomes altered. Freed from the confines of Austen’s style and the structure of the plot, Baker’s prose glitters and her narrative shocks. For me this is the triumph of Longbourn. It stirs things up and I will never read Pride and Prejudice again in the same way. And, although it is a novel I know well, I am grateful for that. I needed to see the underside of the Bennet girls’ lace petticoats, the muddy soles of their delicate shoes. I needed to see the hearts of those not allowed to choose a life for themselves, whether above or below stairs.
Austen somehow leaves me more troubled than Hardy, maybe because I know there is far more going on below the surface of her stories than she would, or could, show us. Baker does something magical with her love of Pride and Prejudice, in a way that should add to its longevity and without diffusing its power.
(And I think the ending is perhaps one of my favourites of all novels.)
This review first appeared on Serendipity Reviews on Thursday 6th February.
I was just driving back from Exeter, dropping my son to work as we have no railway line right now as some of it is in the sea (yes, we live in Teignmouth, the stop along from Dawlish). I was coming up Telegraph Hill through the rain and switched on Radio 4, the World at One, where Martha Kearney was interviewing women about FGM.
Did you know today, February 6th, is International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation?
So I listened in shock to the speakers, one of whom was a remarkable GP who voluntarily runs FGM clinics. Work is begin done in Britain to tackle this practice. To treat women and girls who present with complications. To talk in schools. To educate GPs, social workers, teachers and other front line workers. But there is much work to be done to help heal the wounds and to prevent this crime continuing into the future. Much to be done.
We have to talk about it. FGM is carried out in 28 African countries. Girls and women come to the UK and they have already been cut. Some may possibly be undergoing this horror in the UK. It is barbaric and inhumane wherever it is taking place.
We have to talk about it.
It is 2014. Women all over the world are still treated as inferior to men. They are still not afforded equal rights. In some countries they are not allowed to drive cars. They must cover their faces, never feel the sun on their skin. They are battered and raped. They are cut in the genitals so that they may never enjoy a sexual life; they will suffer through urination, menstruation, childbirth. They may die.
Now, when I post on Facebook about the No More Page 3 campaign, this is something I feel passionate about. Some people have said, why does Sophie get so worked up about this? It is because this is an example of how women are objectified, reduced to a body part. The other extreme of this is FGM. When we view women as inferior to men, as objects, as things with no feelings, no emotions, no life, then we collude in these barbarous acts.
We are all human beings with the same hopes, desires and dreams. We must treat each other as we would be treated. We must be kind. We must go through this life with compassion, respect and love.
Please watch this moving photographic diary from WHO.
Originally posted on Elizabeth Stott - to Blog or Not:
This week is the turn of Sophie Duffy to talk about her writing process. Sophie is a novelist, and writer of prize-winning short stories. Sophie has an authentic and individual voice, an produces wonderfully evocative prose. I loved her novels: The Generation Game and This Holey Life.
Check out Sophie’s responses to the blog tour questions and enjoy her, often witty, observations on life:
We’re all different, us writers. So when it comes to the writing process, it’s fascinating to hear how others do it. The wonderful Elizabeth Stott kindly invited me to follow her in ‘the writing process blog tour’. I have to answer four questions, so do read my answers below. And check out Elizabeth’s blog. I have always been envious of both her distinctive voice and her glorious hair.
1. What am I working on?
I’m redrafting a novel. I wrote it in the third person but now I am trying it in the first person, from my favourite character’s point of view. It feels better already. I suppose I thought it more grown up to write in the third, and a challenge, but maybe I should stick to what feels natural. Won’t say much more now. Except: ‘students’.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I don’t fit neatly into a box. My writing is about family and relationships. It is accessible and readable but I hope with some depth and with some questions about this game of life. My first novel The Generation Game explores this theme through the eyes of Philippa Smith who tells the story of her quirky family to her baby.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I don’t really know quite why I write what I do, other than I write what I am drawn to. I love reading novels that have both comedy and tragedy, a quick wit and a tear-inducing poignancy – books by writers like Sue Townsend, Kate Long, Laurie Graham, Kate Atkinson, David Lodge, Graham Swift. Books about everyday people with unique stories to tell. In This Holey Life, I wrote about a reluctant curate’s wife who has to come to terms with the loss of a child and a new way of life. This sounds very sad but my novels always have hope and try to see the best in life.
4. How does your writing process go?
Sometimes like a dog after a squirrel, sometimes slower than a Swedish art film. Both are valid. I have decided not to worry about word counts as more often than not I fail to reach them. So I am taking the pressure off myself. That’s not to say I’m running away from it or procrastinating (though if you see an earlier blog post of mine, you will see that that is exactly what I do do). But for me there are famines followed by feasts. And there is always a lot of reading, reading, reading and a lot of muscular thinking while walking the dogs or lying in the bath. When I really need to get in the work frame of mind, I hopscotch across the garden to my office, my haven and my sanctuary. My escape from my own quirky family.
Following me on the blog tour next Monday 3rd February is the marvellous writer and teacher Cathie Hartigan. Meanwhile do check out her website and blog and see what goings on happen down Exeter way.
1.Do not comment on their Facebook posts or they will de-friend you and how will you then spy on them? (That is if you are lucky enough to have been accepted as a friend in the first place. It is a privilege. Do not abuse it.)
2. Do not buy clothes from Topshop. Their clothes are designed for sprites, not women who have given birth several times. Don’t compete with your teenage daughter. Just accept you have to move on to M&S.
3. Do not buy underwear for your teenage sons. There comes a point when they should make their own choice in this department. Apart from paying for them and washing them, do not get involved.
4. Do not say anything about your own experiences as a teenager. It is embarrassing and futile. They will still know more than you.
5. Do not ask them about their friendship troubles. You won’t understand or be able to help and even if you do have some words of wisdom these will be met with a sigh and a huff.
6. Do try and aim for at least one meal together as a family per week. It is extremely hard to round up all members and contain in one room for any length of time but give it your best shot. Failing that, offer to take them to Pizza Express or Yo! Sushi. That usually has the desired effect but obviously means you will be even more skint and your arguments can be heard by the general public.
7. Do agree to being taxi driver as often as you can. This is the best time for talking with your teen, when there is no eye contact and Radio 1 is pulsing in your ears.
8. Do believe that this time will pass and you will one day not lie in bed worrying about sex, drugs, booze, cars, exams, university applications, gap years, stripped out bank accounts and fridges. There will be plenty of other worries to be had in the future.
Do you ever think about the other life you might have lived? The other job you might have had? I love being a writer but I do sometimes wonder if I would be happier as a funeral director. I know most people squirm at the thought of seeing and, worse, handling a dead body, but I think it’s one of the most underrated jobs going. What an honour to lay out the body of a loved one, to liaise with a family during the worst time of their lives, to make sure the passing of a special person is marked respectfully, appropriately and smoothly.
Maybe I can attribute my interest in the dead to an episode when I was two years old – one which I don’t remember but that my mother has often told me about. We had recently moved to Teignmouth and our next door neighbour was an elderly lady called Miss Bowles. One morning her cleaner rushed to our house, knocking frantically, ranting ‘I think Miss Bowles is dead! Can you help?’. Mum said ‘I can’t leave my toddler here. She’ll have to come with us’. So we went into Miss Bowles’ house and she was indeed dead, lying on the stairs as if she were a rock climber. Mum called the emergency services and for the rest of the day I kept repeating: ‘Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead. Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead’.
Two years later, we moved to Torquay when my parents bought a newsagents. It was great fun living above the shop but we only had a tiny courtyard outside. So my brothers and I would go to the ‘Boneyard’ of the local church down the road to loiter and play. I loved it there, running in and out of the gravestones, picking flowers in spring and collecting ‘helicopters’ in autumn. The shop and the Boneyard were very important to me and thirty-odd years later they became the inspiration and setting for my novel ‘The Generation Game’.
So what else has drawn me to the dead? When I was ten, my father died suddenly and tragically. It was 1978 and children didn’t go to funerals. Especially awkward ones where the deceased had taken their own life. I’ve often thought about it and wished I had gone. The graveyard where Dad’s ashes are buried is in Selworthy, a beautiful, remote place in Somerset. I find great comfort going there, surrounded by Stenners, going back centuries, family members I knew, and those I have just heard about, and some I can only guess at. When I had an ‘episode’ two years ago, I left home and made my way to Selworthy and lay down on my father’s grave. It was January and night time and very cold but it was the place I wanted to be, a place of comfort and safety – though I have no recollection of how I got there. Fortunately I was hunted down by my husband and a good friend who thought to bring a flask of tea and some custard doughnuts. Without them, I would perhaps have died myself of hyperthermia.
Over the years, cemeteries have been places of interest and I think that’s partly due to losing a parent as a child, and partly because I am a writer and avid reader (literature is of course scattered with death). I’ve visited Pere Lachaise in Paris to see my beloved Oscar Wilde. Much more interesting than the Louvre in my opinion. And when we lived in East Dulwich we used to go to Nunhead cemetery where once a year they had an ‘open day’. There was no exhuming but instead there were plant sales, woodturning exhibitions, and political organisations on recruitment drives. (Only in England.)
I’ve been to many country churchyards and many city ones – one of the most recent was the allegedly haunted Greyfriars cemetery in Edinburgh on a bleak, cold day. I’ve stood at the foot of many war memorials, silently contemplating the loss of so many lives and humbled at the thought that there are just a handful of ‘thankful villages’ in England whose men all returned. And I’ve visited tombs of the unknown soldier in honour of those whose bodies were never brought home.
There are many places still to visit: Highgate cemetery in North London. Sylvia Plath’s grave in Yorkshire. Keats’ final resting place in Rome (see epigraph above). Coventry cathedral. New Orleans. The pyramids. Jesus’ tomb. The battlefields of France and Belgium. Auswitz. Places where millions of people suffered and died and must never be forgotten. Not tourist destinations or places of morbid curiosity, but places of pilgrimage where we can contemplate those that went before and try to learn the lessons that their deaths can teach us about how to live our lives now.
I do think I would have made a good funeral director. I am not afraid of dead bodies or indeed of dying. But I do fear losing my loved ones as I know how hard it is to go on living when you miss a person so much. I think I would be of comfort to the bereaved.
I also think I’d have made a good Victorian when it comes to mourning.
If you feel so inclined, here is Emma Freud’s guide on How to do a Funeral. Its very good and I have cut it out to keep…
And this post is in no way intended to be flippant. It is written with honesty.
Right now I am in the midst of a rewrite for my novel, changing a rather significant part of it. (I won’t go into detail now as that would be procrastinating rather than getting to the point of this blog post which is after all about procrastinating.)But this morning as I got up, I found myself firstly up a ladder cleaning the dust from the top of my son’s wardrobe. Then before I knew it this led me to the wool basket in the corner of the living room, where I began to untangle a ball of very fluffy, fine wool. As I was getting frustrated with this task, I asked myself why I wasn’t actually getting on with my novel.
So I decided to write this blog post. (Yes, I am procrastinating but I am procrastinating by writing about procrastinating so at least I am writing.)
This is a blog post about procrastinating if you hadn’t already grasped that. It is particularly related to writing, and more specifically to fiction writing, and furthermore to novel writing. Why novel writing? Because that’s what I do for a living. I write novels. But I also put off writing novels. Writing a novel is like having a long term relationship. It is off and on. Sometimes there is love and bliss, sometimes annoyance, many excuses and downright anger. Right now, I am in a new phase, the one that comes after counselling and sound advice (agents are well aware of procrastination techniques even though we writers try in vain hide it from them). The new phase means I am trying again. I have good intentions. But I still have old habits to contend with, the worst of which is a horror known as ‘displacement activities’.
Exhibit 1: The top of my son’s wardrobe.
Exhibit 2: A ball of fluffy, fine wool.
Exhibit 3: This blog post.
Why do some writers of novels find displacement activities more alluring than writing their novel? Is it because they are scared of the blank page? Or because they have got stuck on a tricky plot point? Maybe they fed up with their characters? Or is descaling the kettle of greater excitement?
This reminds me of a story I love to tell about displacement activities. I was at a workshop about ten years ago given by the crime novelist Frances Fyfield. She was talking on this very subject. She said that one day she was doing some mundane task or other, trying not to write her novel. She then thought, I know I’ll phone my friend for a chat. Her friend was fellow crime novelist Val McDermid. Val answered the phone and Frances asked her what she was up to. Val replied: ‘Bleaching the spoons’.
Both these novelists are fantastic crime writers and hugely successful and critically acclaimed. So even they are prone to procrastination, so it seems.
But both Val and Frances must get on with it at some point because they are prolific and professional and they write flipping good books.
So yes, I might go and bleach the spoons but then at some point I will get down to it. I will give my novel another chance and I will write some words, not necessary in the right order but I will pin them down to the page.
Next Monday I will be blogging about the writing process as I have been asked to do so by the wonderfully talented Elizabeth Stott. Do look at her link below to see how she does it.
What are your favoured displacement activities?
Do read Elizabeth’s Stott’s post on the process of writing. How do you do it?
Originally posted on Elizabeth Stott - to Blog or Not:
The idea of the writing process is often talked about in creative writing literature. Whatever your take on it, writing well and consistently requires hard work and dedication. Halo not polished enough in my case, but I do know that magical thinking is not enough! Writer Kathleen Jones invited me to follow her in the ‘writing process blog tour’, to give some insight into my own writing processes. Diligent or not, I will attempt to put some of my own methods into words, based on the four core questions of the blog tour.
But first, thank you to Kathleen Jones for suggesting me. Kathleen is an award-winning poet, biographer, fiction writer and journalist. I can recommend her latest biography: Norman Nicholson – The Whispering Poet.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
(Right, bear with me on this post as it could meander all over the place.)
I have been reading about the Michael Gove-Sir Tony Robinson-Blackadder history education hoo-ha. And it’s got me going back in time to my teenage years at school in Devon and as a student at Lancaster.
I was 11 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. I was 22 when she was usurped by John Major. By then I was married, living in London and doing my PGCE. I went on to teach in what were known as ‘inner city’ schools in Camberwell and Plumstead, with an interest in early years and how we learn to write.
After a few years, I had my own children, three of them, in quick succession (when our daughter was born, her brothers were just 2 and 3 years of age). Those years are a blur, to be honest. But I do remember it was the steepest of learning curves.
Now, in 2014, those infants are teenagers, one on a gap year, one in his final year of sixth form, and one in Year 10. I have not returned to primary school teaching. But I have seen my kids go through the education system. I have taught in pre-schools, been a youth worker, and done a Masters degree. And now I teach adults creative writing. I have experienced more than my fair share of education.
Going back to 1987…
I met my husband at university. He was a history and politics student and active member of the student union and Labour club. I was studying English and Women’s Studies. We had a shared worldview, even though I was a yokel and he was a Londoner. And what made our political development more honed? We had something to rail against. The excesses of Thatcherism.
The ‘alternative comedy’ scene was central to this for me. Spitting Image, Saturday Live, French and Saunders and Blackadder were a huge part of my growing up and instrumental to my development as a writer. But especially Blackadder as it was a ‘sitcom’ and hence had a narrative. Blackadder Goes Forth, aired first in 1989, was the most complex of the four series, comi-tragedy at its Shakespearean best. Who can stay dry-eyed at the final moments as our beloved characters go over the top and the terrifying scene is replaced by poppy fields? (See clip at end of post.)
Fast forward to another Tory government. 2014. And Mr Gove. I am angry but not in the least bit surprised that the Education Minister is attacking the way WW1 is taught in schools. Sir Tony Robinson aka Baldrick has retaliated with his support for teachers, teachers who know how young people learn best: through dynamic and multi-media means (a little bit of alliteration there). How amazing that we can learn about the past through poetry, letters, memoirs, ‘official’ documents, academic books, comic strips, art, music, photographs, field trips, film footage … and, yes, satire.
BGF is satire. It flags up the absurdity of war, the senselessness and futility of sending millions of men to their untimely, tragic deaths. Declining empire pitched against rising empire. And the result? The Nazis. WW2. The Holocaust. Miilions of civilian deaths. All in the name of power.
Doesn’t mankind (and here I really do mean mankind) ever learn?
What have we learned one hundred years on, as empires once again shift and pose and strut. What can we learn?
We’ve tried to bring our kids up to be progressive, anti-racist, feminist, to ask questions, to argue. And boy have there been some arguments. The most momentous was at the dinner table a few years ago when DS1 and DS2 (forgive Mumsnet-type acronyms) conflicted over the outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles. It still bubbles to the surface even now.
It is hard being a teenager. It is very hard being a teenager in 2014 as they have to navigate their way through a minefield of social media and sexualised images and celebrity non-culture. Yes, they have their own generation of comedy too but the ‘alternative’ is now mainstream. (Jack Whitehall is lovely but he isn’t Ben Elton.) So I am glad my boys were shown Blackadder Goes Forth at school as part of their learning experience of the Great War. I am saddened that our daughter chose not to take history as an option. But she has seen Blackadder Goes Forth at home. And she has had to endure listening to her brothers battle it out over the Treaty of Versailles (if you’ll pardon the pun).
But imagine being a teenager in 1914?
My hope is for all three of them to go through the rest of their teenage years and into adulthood always questioning, never settling for the status quo. And to remember that most of their worries and problems are ‘first world’ worries and problems.
I hope they put their experiences into the bigger picture and ask what it is to be a good human being.
I hope my daughter can take on her brothers over the outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles.
And I hope that teachers continue to show Blackadder Goes Forth to their students and that Michael Gove doesn’t win in his elitist attempt to rewrite history.
And I thank God that this is not 1914 and that I do not have to wave my boys off to war.
http://www.wordsforthewounded.co.uk/index.html Do consider entering the Words for the Wounded writing prize. Closing date March 11th 2014.
We will remember them.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.