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It is an extraordinary tribute to Jane Austen and the power of her writing that now, two centuries on, readers and writers across the globe are still wanting to inhabit the world she created in Pride and Prejudice. There is a strong tradition of sequels, translations and reinventions of this classic tale, and the latest in this line is Longbourn by Jo Baker (published by Random House), which retells the story from the perspective of the servants. Longbourn, much like that other famous piece of Austen fan-fiction, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, has been very popular and is due to be made into a film.
Fan-fiction has a slightly strange place in the ecosystem of books. Many shy away from the term, which is broadly used to describe the process whereby writers set their stories in the worlds of other authors’ books, often using other authors’ characters, and sometimes inserting themselves as a character into the story (this last is known as Mary-Sue fanfiction). And it is true that, especially since the advent of the internet, and consequent ease of self-publishing, there is a plethora of poorly written wish-fulfilment drivel out there, a significant proportion of which is pornographic. But fan-fiction also has a higher calling. Writers being inspired by other writers forms an integral part of any literary tradition, with significant works echoing down the generations and growing in the retelling. With modern copyright laws, most of the fan-fiction that gets made into books by publishers is based on the works of writers long dead; a notable exception being Fifty Shades of Grey, which is openly Twilight fanfiction with the names changed to avoid lawsuits.
Longbourn, Baker’s fifth novel, is a well-written and enjoyable piece of Mary-Sue fan-fiction. Baker, a lifelong fan of Austen, had ancestors in service, and was thrilled to discover from one of Austen’s surviving letters that she once employed two Baker sisters to do some sewing for her. “For me, it was a goosebumps moment” says Baker. “It seemed to give me permission to write.” Baker has put her writing talents to good use, imagining herself into the story as Sarah, a housemaid in the Bennets’ home. She says that writing Longbourn was like a dream come true: “to inhabit this much-loved world, to keep company with these characters…it was so much fun.”
Sarah’s life of drudgery is vividly drawn, and Baker succeeds in making us understand just how precarious were the lives of the poor in Regency England, where livelihood and shelter could be arbitrarily whisked away at a word from someone higher up the class system. It gave a whole new layer to the Bennets’ anxiety about the entail: when Mr Collins inherits Longbourn, will the servants still have jobs? A home? Where I thought the reimagining fell down, however, was in giving Sarah too much of Baker’s own twenty-first-century sensibility: Sarah’s outrage at the class system, racism, domestic service and foreign wars feels too modern for an uneducated nineteenth-century teenager whose entire life has been spent in one country village.
As a reader, one of the joys of well-written fan-fiction is seeing beloved and familiar characters from a different angle, and Baker achieves this with aplomb. Her Darcy, seen through servants’ eyes, is frighteningly detached, utterly resistant to the notion that servants might be people with opinions and lives, and is described several times as failing to see Sarah at all, as though she had been literally – as well as socially – invisible. Baker’s Lizzie, although kind in a rather offhand manner, is basically ornamental, and scared of the responsibilities she inherits upon becoming Mrs Darcy. But where Baker really shines is with her reimagining of Wickham. Rather than a charming rogue, her Wickham is a genuinely menacing sexual predator, whose advances towards the prepubescent housemaid Polly become even more frightening as we realise that, as a servant, Polly has absolutely no one to protect her.
Overall, I would recommend Longbourn to Austen fans and lovers of historical romance. The writing is engaging and the plot, if rather wish-fulfilment-driven, is narratively satisfying. Longbourn is, at its heart, an act of love.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
by Jo Baker
Published by Doubleday