Do you remember the footman in Pride and Prejudice? Me neither, and I’ve read Jane Austen’s classic umpteen times. So I’m going to take author Jo Baker’s word that he appears in the novel just once, an invisible man delivering a letter to the drawing room.
But in Baker’s spirited re-imagining, Longbourn (Knopf, digital galley), the hiring of young James Smith as the Bennet family’s new manservant is as newsmaking below stairs as Mr. Bingley’s arrival is upstairs. For aging Mr. Hill, it means gratefully handing over the coach reins on cold nights. For orphaned housemaids Sarah and Polly, it’s a new face and some help with the heavy-duty chores, although Sarah wonders why the housekeeper Mrs. Hill is having a closed-door conversation with Mr. Bennet. Surely, there’s nothing to object to about the strong, leanly attractive James?
“This is what Sarah had always wanted: something — anything — to disturb the quiet. . .the prospect of another spiritless season, and the monotony of reading three-decker novels and three-day old news.”
Sarah is both pragmatic and aspiring as she washes the Bennet girls’ muddy petticoats and totes their chamber pots. She saves one of Elizabeth’s hand-me-down gowns for her best. She keeps a small wooden hope chest under her bed. She borrows books from Mr. Bennet. She flirts with Ptolemy, Mr. Bingley’s attentive manservant, but it’s really secretive James she has her eye on. Sent on a miserable, rainy errand to shop for rosettes for dancing slippers, she finds a limited selection and figures the Bennet sisters can like her choice or lump it. She rather hopes they lump it.
Baker does a splendid job of intermingling the familiar storylines of Austen’s novel with the lives of the servants. They are sympathetic to the socially inept Mr. Collins, and Mrs. Hill approves of his marrying Charlotte Lucas because there will be little upset downstairs when the day comes. Sarah is quick to warn pre-teen Polly that Mr. Wickham is up to no good.
Baker imagines some events before and after those in Pride and Prejudice, thus amplifying her own tale and Austen’s, creating a story that can stand on its own. Sarah’s romance with James is thwarted when he suddenly disappears, and this dramatic turn allows for his backstory as a foot soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. A long-held secret illuminates another side to Mr. Bennet. The ending is real and lovely.
Perhaps best of all is Baker’s sensitivity to her characters’ inner lives and her evocative writing. One vignette depicts several servants abed after a long day, heads still turning on pillows. “Mrs. Hill was not asleep either. She lay looking up at the cold stars through the skylight. . .She thought, Wherever you are in this world, the sky is still above you. Wherever you are, God still watches over you; He sees into your heart.”
Of rewriting Austen there seems to be no end. In this year of Pride and Prejudice’s 200th anniversary, HarperCollins’ The Austen Project is commissioning six well-known contemporary writers for updates of Austen’s novels. Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility (HarperCollins, digital galley) is first out of the gate the end of the month, and Alexander McCall Smith has just been tapped for Emma. Oh, dear. I generally like Trollope’s novels but was disconcerted by her faux Austen. It begins with the Dashwood sisters and their mother understandably upset at the prospect of losing their Norland Park home, but there’s little to suggest that this is a 21st-century tale until Margaret suddenly begins fiddling with her iPod. I rather wish Trollope had just used Austen’s story as inspiration to write her own novel, as Cathleen Schine did in the playful The Three Weissmans of Westport.
I was much more entertained by journalist Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley). Austen fans, of course, are legion, obsessive and yet surprisingly diverse in their passions. Some are enamoured of Regency culture and clothes; academics concentrate on scholarly details and scorn fan fiction; amateur psychologists read between the lines and wonder where Darcy fits on the autism spectrum. As someone who loved Jane Austen before Colin Firth wore a wet shirt, I admit to being a Janeite, but I’m minor league compared to these folks. On the other hand, I like a good ramble around the Republic of Pemberley website.