ElCicco #CBR5 Review #46: Longbourn: A Novel by Jo Baker

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Lovers of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice will recognize the title of this novel as the name of the estate where the beloved Elizabeth Bennet and her family reside. Jo Baker, a diehard fan of Austen and the novel, has taken the classic story and created a parallel “behind the scenes” story for it, imagining what life was like for the servants at Longbourn at the time of the events of Pride and Prejudice. Baker’s focus is on her own characters, some of whom are mentioned in passing in P&P and some that spring from her own imagination. Longbourn complements P&P in a startling way. The reader is exposed to a world that existed in tandem with Austen’s society but that was hidden from the likes of the Bennets, largely because they didn’t have to look. Baker shows in detail the world of the servant, the orphan, the common soldier as opposed to the wealthy, the privileged, the officer. She also has created a really topnotch plot for her characters. I don’t think I’ll be able to read P&P again without thinking of Baker’s characters and the way servants kept the upper crust’s world running smoothly.

Our main character is Sarah, a house servant at Longbourn, an orphan roughly the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. Her life is full of work, from early morning before the family arises, until after dark, when everyone else has gone to bed. The other servants include the cook/housekeeper Hill, her butler husband Mr. Hill, and the younger servant Polly, who is also an orphan. Baker provides detailed descriptions of the types of work required of servants and the amount of effort involved in seemingly mundane tasks like cleaning clothes. In P&P, a famous scene shows our plucky heroine Elizabeth walking to Netherfield through muddy fields, getting her petticoats filthy in 6 inches of muck. How we adore her for being so independent and unconcerned about Mr. Bingley’s sisters’ derision! Yet from Sarah’s point of view, Elizabeth might take better care if she were the one responsible for getting those petticoats back to a pristine white state. Elizabeth and Sarah, though residing under the same roof, live in two very different worlds. Even their experiences of a visit to Meryton are as different as night and day. Elizabeth and her sisters visit shops and mingle with officers. Sarah sees this: Back alleys opened off to the left and right, where half-naked children made dams and pools in the gutters and women hunched on their doorsteps under shawls, bundled babies in their arms. The shambles, when she passed them, were deserted, but were filled with their usual miasma of terror, of ammonia and blood. Sarah’s experience of officers in Meryton is a truly hideous scene in which officers flog an enlisted man. The Miss Bennets would never have seen or known of such things.

The plot for Longbourn gets underway when a new servant is hired — James Smith. He is a few years older than Sarah, dark and quiet. Nothing is known or said about his background, and Sarah finds this suspicious. Why are Mrs. Hill and everyone else so willing to take on and trust this stranger? Even though he works very hard, taking on several tasks that had fallen to Sarah’s lot before (and making her life a bit easier), Sarah finds him irksome because he doesn’t engage with her. She resolves to uncover the truth about him. At the same time, the wealthy Bingley family arrives to open their estate at Netherfield, and Mr. Bingley’s servants, in particular a footman named Ptolemy (Tol), provide novel social interaction for the Longbourn servants. Tol is a mulatto, very handsome and charming. He and Sarah hit it off, but Mrs. Hill doesn’t trust him and James seems wary as well, setting up tension in the servants’ quarters. It is reminiscent of Elizabeth’s relations with Darcy and Wickham without being a clumsy recreation of it.

While Tol and James are figures of Baker’s imagination (and very well drawn characters), there are some characters from P&P besides the Bennets who figure prominently in this novel. Baker’s use of Mr. Collins and of Wickham contributes nicely to the plot without taking anything away from P&P. The arrival of Mr. Collins, future heir to Longbourn, creates a fuss and bother in the servants’ quarters not just because Mrs. Bennet is in an uproar about it but also because the fate of the servants will depend on Mr. Collins. Mrs. Hill is very concerned that, upon taking ownership of Longbourn, Mr. Collins will want to retain their services instead of firing them and bringing in others. In P&P, Mr. Collins is a comic character, much derided by Elizabeth and her father for his pedantry and awkward manners. Sarah provides a more sympathetic view of the man: Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give. Wickham, on the other hand, remains very much the smarmy cad, and the adults below stairs have his character pegged long before the Bennet family.

Rather than go into any more plot detail (because it would spoil the fun for anyone who wants to read this), I’ll just say that the overriding theme is about having your own life and finding your own happiness instead of living in the shadow of someone else’s, a luxury afforded to a minority. Lovers of Pride and Prejudice will find that Baker takes great care of our beloved main characters from that novel while showing us a world that Austen and the Bennets barely knew.

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bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #31: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

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I’m often highly skeptical of biography, especially of biography related to my beloved authoress, Jane Austen. But Paula Byrne tackles her life–or what little we know of it–through a series of items, relating what little we do know to the larger world in which Austen herself lived, imagined and wrote.

From her writing-desk, to the barouche, her brother’s cocked hat, and the topaz crosses she and her sister Cassandra were gifted, we know a little something about the elusive and mysterious woman whose novels are read, discussed, and adapted to this day. My favorite chapter is “The Topaz Crosses,” in which Austen’s interest in the military stems from the enlistment and careers of her brothers Charles and Francis. Here, we see how the connections of the military in Mansfield Park marry with Austen’s own personal experience, creating–for me–a different way to perceive the novel. Apparently, Mary Crawford’s infamous “Rears and Vices” joke may have some homosexual allusions, and possibly stemmed from a joke Austen herself made in one of her letters. And this may lead us to believe that Austen herself was more shades of Crawford than Price. Interesting.

Byrne’s tone is neither sneeringly condescending (a popular critical tone taken towards Austen), nor is it breathlessly adulatory (the other cringeworthy pitfall taken by scholars), but instead takes a respectful and curious look at the pieces of evidence surrounding what seems to have been a rich and full life. This work is an excellent companion piece to Austen’s novels and letters, and both scholars and fans will find something to enjoy and be enriched by.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

 

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #28: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is my jam, y’all. I started off my love affair with her at the tender age of 12 or 13, when Pride and Prejudice was featured on a Wishbone episode. Obviously, I owe a lifelong debt to PBS for this. I checked out P&P from the library and promptly devoured it. At 14, I checked out the entire anthology of her published works. Though I was definitely young, it was an experience I never forgot, and I spent my teen years slowly collecting all the novels for my personal library. As a young adult, I tried to cycle through all her novels each year–and though I’ve had to abandon that scheme for other unread books, I can discuss each work with great and vociferous animation. In short: Austenite to the bone. Thankfully, I will be able to incorporate Austen into my dissertation, and I had to read Mansfield Park for a class I am enrolled in this semester.

So, let’s talk about one of Austen’s most problematic novels. Mansfield Park chronicles the arrival of the queer, solemn, prudish Fanny Price from her humble home in Portsmouth to the grand estate in Northamptonshire, Mansfield Park, owned by Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, her aunt and uncle. Brought up on their charity, she is encouraged by her other aunt, Mrs. Norris (and yes, she *is* catty!) to think lowly of herself and not to elevate herself above her “true” station in life. When Sir Thomas is called away to deal with his plantation in Antigua (and that small subplot has yielded all kinds of scholarship on abolition, post-colonial narratives, the slave trade), the young people start to test the boundaries of what is good, proper, moral, etc. A young pair of siblings–Henry and Mary Crawford–move into the parsonage next door, and the fun really begins. Mary is a sassmouth, Henry a cad, and the rest is history.

Fanny is often cited as the least favorite Austen heroine, but she’s my personal favorite. While she lacks the sparkle of a Mary Crawford, the outright evil deliciousness of Mrs. Norris (miaow! I mean really, J.K. Rowling hit the nail on the head with Filch’s cat), or even the witty vivaciousness of P&P’s Elizabeth Bennet, she is steadfast and resolute in her convictions. The only power a woman has in her social position is to say no–and say it she does, at a most crucial moment in the novel.

If you liked Pride and Prejudice, I’d suggest that you give Mansfield Park a try. Be prepared: it is vastly different. My husband did not care for it. I, however, treasure it and try to re-read it every year.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #5: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Cannonball Read V: Book #5/52
Published: 1813
Pages: 279
Genre: Classic

3 stars: Good, but I probably wouldn’t read again.

This book is part of my project to try and read more classics. So far, all it’s doing is reminding me why I never read classics. However, Pride and Prejudice is one of those books that is a struggle to get through but you end up liking AFTER you read it.

I knew the basic storyline because I have seen the movie with Kiera Knightley in it. I liked the movie, so I figured I might like the book even though I rarely read (or like) romance novels. Basically it’s about a girl named Elizabeth and her 700 sisters (seriously, it seems like that many) and their mother who is trying to marry them off to rich guys. Their family lives out in the country in England and everyone goes wild when some new rich guy comes into town. The rich guy (Mr. Bingsley) throws a ball and ends up falling for Elizabeth’s older sister. Mr. Bingsley has an even richer friend named Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy is kind of an ass.

Read the rest in my blog.

Jess’s #CRB5 Review #2: Austenland by Shannon Hale

Austenland (Austenland, #1)After discovering her love of Pride and Prejudice (especially the epic BBC movie with Colin Firth), Jane’s great-aunt leaves her an all-expenses paid trip to Penbrook Park. Penbrook is an English country manor, all dolled up in every Austen and stocked with actors doing their best to fill the Regency fantasies of their guests.

For the next three weeks, Jane will live and breathe the world of corsets, strolls in the garden, and trying not to make a mess of her embroidery project – on top of navigating a charming gardener willing to break a few rules (how very George Wickham of him) and Mr. Nobley, one of the actors who is giving his very best Austen hero face.

The plot is pretty simplistic and if you know your Austen, you can easily figure out how things are going to go (even not knowing your Austen, you’ll latch on fast). Luckily, Shannon Hale makes it easy enough to root for Jane to grow up (and out) of her Darcy/Firth obsession – she’s a sharp woman who happens to be in love with what a fictional character represents. Who hasn’t been there? And I think this may be a case where the up-coming movie could actually elevate the plot and characters. There’s great potential for some smart sight-gags and the cast is rather promising.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Post #1 – Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

All of my friends told me I needed to read this book about the moment it came out. I even had people telling me I needed to name my boy Darcy because of my whole Austen thing. (I didn’t). And yet somehow I managed to miss it for years. What was I thinking?  It’s a hoot.

The book is basically P&P, but with some zombie stuff added in. I read somewhere that it’s 85% of the original, but I didn’t bother to do the math. Most of the story is there, but now there’s a zombie plague in England, and the Bennett girls are warriors trained by Chinese monks to fight the evil undead.  You know, like you do. The standard bits are there, with a bit of a twist. Like, when Jane goes to Netherfield to dine with the sisters Bingley, instead of catching cold in the rain, she has to fight zombies.  In the rain. And catches a cold.

There’s very little to not like about this book especially if you’re an Austen fan. Although, if you’re a Charlotte Lucas-Collins fan, you might be a little bit put out. I was alternately amused and bummed out by Charlotte’s involvement in the story, although her reasons for marrying Mr. Collins this time make a bit more sense.

Anyway, I’m guessing anyone reading this review will have already read this book, so I’m not going to bother recommending it.  If you’ve been holding off reading for fear of treading on Jane’s sacred memory, get over it. There are a lot worse Austen-adjacent books out there.  Believe me, because I’ve read a bunch of them.