Maid's pride & prejudice

Longbourne, the debut of British novelist Jo Baker, is a richly drawn historical tale which parallels Jane Austen's iconic romance, Pride And Prejudice, describing what life was like for the domestic help in the houses of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy.

Published exactly 200 years ago, Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice has been mined so often that British novelist Jo Baker deserves an award for finding new depths in the novel.

Apart from numerous film and TV adaptations, many have authored sequels and revisions to the Cinderella-like romance of saucy Elizabeth Bennet and haughty Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Two years ago, noted crime writer P.D. James delivered an "official sequel", Death Comes To Pemberley, in which Darcy and Elizabeth solve a murder mystery.

Longbourn pays even better homage with a story that enlarges Austen's world, even while remaining centred on Elizabeth's childhood home.

Even though the book was released only last week, film rights were snapped up six months ago by Focus Features, which made the 2005 version of Pride And Prejudice starring Keira Knightley.

But unlike the frothy comedy of Pride And Prejudice, Longbourn's strengths lie in dark, gripping drama.

The Bennet girls and their romances are but the backdrop of this novel, which focuses instead on their maidservant Sarah.

An orphan who grows to womanhood in the Bennet kitchens, she sees her mistresses give dinners or attend dances while she walks miles across muddy fields, in the rain, to deliver invitations or polite acceptances.

No wonder then that she wants more out of life, especially when Mr Bennet hires a new footman who has travelled the world.

Sarah's tale follows the arc of the Pride And Prejudice narrative but soon eclipses that story. The author provides reams of period detail that will be lapped up by lovers of the Downton Abbey TV series.

Much of the narrative is devoted to the sheer labour of living - animal fat must be slowly rendered into soap, laundering clothes takes an entire day - and Baker luxuriates in describing this, just as she did in previous historical novels such as The Picture Book (2011), which followed one family through the 20th century.

Longbourn could have been a standalone narrative about an aspiring maidservant employed anywhere in Georgian England, but setting the story in the Bennet home provides startling context for readers familiar only with the full skirts of the period and not the seams.

Baker can write honestly about issues that Austen would have been unable to even reference.

The villainous officer Wickham's seduction of Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia has stomach-turning undertones when viewed through Sarah's eyes, and Jane Bennet's suitor Mr Bingley seems far less wholesome when one considers that the slave-and-sugar trade might have laid the foundations for his vast wealth.

Austen wrote for readers of her time and therefore did not need to explain, for example, the reason why army officers encamp in the Bennet's vicinity - en route to fight the Peninsula War against Napoleon - or why Mrs Bennet so earnestly desires to marry her daughters off and despises the entail that means Longbourn will be left to a male cousin.

Her machinations are put in a different light in Longbourn, with one simple exchange between Elizabeth and Sarah.

"What can a woman do, all on her own, and unsupported?" asks Elizabeth. "Work," the maid answers, neatly illustrating the differences between their social levels and their approaches to life.

For all her strong will and character, Elizabeth is limited by her birth. Independence can come only through marriage to Darcy. In comparison, Sarah is far freer and watching her choose her own path is both liberating and satisfying.

akshitan@sph.com.sg


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