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A Book A Week: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn is a down-at-the-heels understaffed house in 19th century England, where you are more likely to get pigshit on your shoes than to meet a nobleman. The fact that Longbourn is the home of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice is hardly mentioned in Jo Baker's Longbourn, and the few Bennet family members who do appear in the novel do so peripherally and mostly unsympathetically. Instead, this book focuses on the Longbourn servants, especially Sarah the housemaid and James the footman.

Usually I avoid the Jane Austen extended universe: the sequels and prequels, the mash-ups, the secret diaries, the mysteries and the modern-day retelllings. But I was interested in Longbourn because it focuses on the servants and not on the traditional cast of Pride and Prejudice. It also is clearly not a romance. I like my historical fiction with some grit, and it sounded like this book had it.

An orphan taken in by the Bennet family housekeeper, Sarah works grueling hours in harsh circumstances. Baker makes sure we know about Sarah's painful chilblains and what time she gets up to lay the fires every day. The rest of the servants, like all good literary characters, have secrets and agendas of their own. Both Sarah and James dream of better lives, but societal and economic restrictions limit their choices. James has also spent time in the army, and Baker revisits his years fighting in Spain, a section of the book I read with increasing horror but that ultimately adds to the novel's depth.

I love the way Baker uses some of the plot elements from Pride and Prejudice to her own different effect. Austen readers will remember that Longbourn is entailed; it can only be inherited by a male relative, Mr. Collins, a distant cousin of the Bennet girls. This uncertainty, far from being confined to the Bennet family, drives action in the servants' hall as well, as the housekeeper worries that the new heir will want to replace the existing staff with all new people, as would be his right.

Her very real fears that she and her elderly husband could be cast adrift, just as they are too old to find new positions, keeps her awake at night and scrambling to impress Mr. Collins when he visits Longbourn. I enjoyed revisiting these familiar situations from a different angle, but readers who don't remember every detail of Pride and Prejudice will have no trouble getting the point.

I'm also moderately interested in a batch of new additions to the Austen extended universe: the Austen Project. HarperCollins has commissioned six bestselling contemporary authors to write modern retellings of Austen's six full-length novels. What attracts me to this project is the authors themselves. I skipped the first release, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, but I'm planning to read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, whose crime writing is just so fierce. I'm also interested in Curtis Sittenfeld's take on Pride and Prejudice, which comes out this fall.

The literary press has been lukewarm about the Austen Project. I can't figure out a review in the Guardian in which Robert McCrum seems to be saying that McDermid did a good job with Northanger Abbey despite the thanklessness of the task. McCrum says that publishers should focus on finding the next Jane Austen or Val McDermid instead of selling retreads. On one hand I agree with him, but as a fan of (some) fan fiction, I am starting to see the other side -- that the reading public’s desire to continue engaging with these characters and stories challenges publishers to meet this need.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week. She can be followed @abookaweek on Twitter.

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