Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Thursday, 16 January 2014

My Christmas pile always brings much reading. Here it is:

First off the pile, so fast I’d read three chapters by Christmas lunchtime, was Longbourn by Jo Baker. This tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of Sarah, the head housemaid.

Except, wonderfully, it doesn’t. This tells the story of Sarah, and of her romances and follies, and the mistakes others make around her. That she happens to be a maid at Longbourn and subject to the whims and fancies of the Bennett girls is merely her lot in life.

Baker doesn’t attempt to copy Austen’s style, which made me instantly delighted. Her protagonists are different people, with a different way of speaking and thinking, so Sarah’s voice is – as it should be – totally different. The novel reminded me of both Wide Sargasso Sea, with its inversion of authorial focus, and the work of Sarah Waters, in the voice the author takes.

Of course, it helps if you know Pride and Prejudice. Unlike Death Comes to Pemberley, none of Austen’s characters are twisted to fit the narrative. Instead we get a different side to them. Mr Bennett loses some of the sympathy he normally gets, and Mrs Bennett gains some. Darcy becomes a force of nature and Wickham, well, none of the servants trust him.

Structurally, it’s split into three volumes, echoing the structure of early novels. I did feel the third volume, which goes into flashbacks by multiple characters, started rather more weakly than the other two but the narrative drive returns when we return to Sarah’s perspective.

This is a novel about choices, or lack of them. About making the best of your lot in life, or of throwing aside the rules. Of risking everything for romantic ideas rather or securing your future. It’s the perfect reflection of Austen’s novel and I recommend it.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Saturday, 24 March 2012

I’m going to break my word limit here. Just warning you. I actually got my rant down in January but wordpress ate it. So now I’m trying again. With frequent ‘save draft’ clicks.

Death Comes to Pemberley
PD James
(faber & faber, 2011)

You can totally see the logic that meant someone gave this to me at Christmas. It’s three of my favorite things in one bundle: Pride and Prejudice, crime and “non-canonical fiction”. I really need a better term for it than that but “professionally published material making use of another’s fictional universe” is a mouthful. And Mark Lawson’s “literary continuation” deliberately seeks to exclude the wilder, less legal, edges of the field. Whatever you call it, I’ve shelves of it.

‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ is a sequel to ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Elizabeth Darcy (formerly Bennet) is preparing to host the annual Pemberley ball when a body is discovered in the grounds. Darcy, one of the local magistrates, has to investigate and suspicion quickly falls on his childhood friend – and adult rival – George Wickham.

As in Emma Tennant’s Pemberley, characters are made to undergo radicial personality changes in order to enable the author’s desired plot. You can accept Lady Catherine de Bourgh softening her attitude towards Elizabeth once there are (male) heirs at Pemberley. But one of the other characters from the original is so distorted to enable him to play a role that I was thrown out of the narrative.

Not that I’d got particularly into it. An entire chapter at the start is given over to recapping the plot of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. It was the only section of the book that raised a smile, in fact, by being the only bit to capture some of Austen’s sly spirit and tone. But P&P is hardly an obscure text, and the whole book is sold on being a P&P novel. It seems either gratuitous to do an unrequired recap, or egotistical to assume a reader has bought the book on the author’s name alone.

There’s 137 books riffing on ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Yes, really. It’s an industry that rivals that of non-canonical Holmes. There is, in other words, a massive audience for P&P fiction.

So how does it read as a crime novel, if you set aside the P&P elements? It’s an alright, but rather dry, procedural. Mention of the police early on confused me, as I wasn’t sure there was a police force – at least in rural England – in 1803. And so we progress through the arrest, the trial etc., and the resolution. The crime is solved not through Darcy having unusual perceptions and being a proto-detective, but through confessions. That’s not the sort of crime novel I find satisfying, and there wasn’t enough puzzle to play with as a reader.

By trying to sit on two stools, this novel falls down instead.


Monday, 7 November 2011

In which Scarlett O’Hara attempts to win back Rhett Butler. Because Scarlett learning her lesson at the end of Gone With the Wind by being denied her soulmate is just too gloomy.

Alexandra Ripley
(Pan Books, 1991)

Perhaps the most annoying element of this brick of a book is the “so it is” portrayal of the Irish. The romanticisation of the Deep South in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 original can be excused as nostalgia for a long-vanished age. I’m not sure even that justifies its reactionary views, but at least Mitchell packed in the action, and had a stunning set piece at its mid-point.

Scarlett lacks such a background, and crosses the Atlantic in search of an equivalent. Scarlett herself promptly forgot the lesson she learnt in the fog in Atlanta, and goes after Rhett just as she went after Ashley. The portrayal of Ireland in the 1870s is just a bundle of laughable clichés, covering every possible stereotype of the Irish. And it shows a political naivety by treating the fight for an independent Ireland – a fight that was still killing people in 1991 when she wrote this book – as equivalent to Mitchell’s romanticised Deep South.

I liked it as a bodice-ripper, but it left an uncomfortable impression.

Jamaica Inn

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

There are times when, faced with the need to read, a girl reaches for familiar comforts. Jamaica Inn is mine. Before we get to the review, I’ll explain our history.

As a kid, I thought Jamaica Inn would be about pirates. It’s a logical guess by someone who watched a lot of Errol Flynn movies as a kid. I pulled my mum’s copy off the shelf, discovered it involved a girl in Cornwall and put it back in disgust. Half a decade later, I took it back down, tried again and fell utterly for Daphne du Maurier’s fiction. That copy is the one I still have. The paper is so thin you can see the text on the other side. The blue fabric covers are faded to lilac by the sun. There are a mountain of printers’ errors, possibly due to it having been printed in 1947.

There is no other physical book that is so comforting to me. Which is strange, as the story is discomforting.

Jamaica Inn
Daphne du Maurier
(Virago Modern Classics, 2003 [my edition, Victor Gollancz 1947])

After Mary Yellan’s widowed mother dies in 1820, Mary follows through on her promise to sell the family farm and to go live with her lively Aunt Patience. Patience has married the landlord of Jamaica Inn, Joss Merlyn, and Mary will help them run the coaching house high on Bodmin Moor. Except no stagecoaches stop at Jamaica, and the waggons that come by night carry a dreadful cargo.

The story is in some ways a standard romance. Despite his bad family and open life of crime, upright church-going Mary falls for Jem Merlyn (her uncle’s younger brother). There’s a supporting cast of squires and pedlars, along with the albino vicar of Alternun.

What makes the novel stand out, though, is the descriptions.

They would be born of strange stock who slept with this earth for a pillow, beneath this black sky.

There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills. And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.

The book hums with a love of Cornwall: the stark high moors, the soft greens of the south coast valleys, the crash of surf on the northern cliffs. This is what brings me back to the novel again and again. The vividness of the description includes the vicar’s paintings, infused with an alien green light, and the brittle, brutal wildness of a tor in winter.

There are also great character touches. Though Mary Yellan curses that she is a woman and thus cannot fight her uncle physically or her attraction to his brother mentally, she is strong and independant. She takes action when she can, she holds her own against the villains. She faints only when she has endured dreadful events. For a historical romance heroine, written in the 1930s, she’s tough and modern.

The vicar of Alternun isn’t a jovial churchman, he doesn’t provide a warm sanctuary for Mary. Even the terrifying Joss Merlyn isn’t one dimensional: when drunk he is haunted by the people he’s killed.

Jamaica Inn is the best kind of romantic novel: it isn’t comfortable or sweet. It’s tough and beautiful, and is much a romance about the sublime landscape as it is human relationships.

Years back, going over the A30 (the prosaic name for the high moor road) we passed the real Jamaica Inn. It was on the other side of the road to the way I’d always pictured it. Despite having seen it for real, I still picture it the way du Maurier described it.

The Mulberry Empire

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Not only has my reading slowed to a slouched dawdle, my chances to write up reviews are rare. The chap is on duty though, so here goes…

The Mulberry Empire
Philip Hensher
(Flamingo, 2002)

Mighty military forces play out their power struggle in Afghanistan, forcing one regime change after another. It’s the dawn of the Victorian era and the start of The Great Game, where Great Britain and Russia tussle over the asian subcontinent without caring what becomes of the lands they war over.

Hensher uses multiple points-of-view to convey the scale of the story, contrasting the views from abroad (both in England and St Petersburg) with the views on the ground (both Afghani and European). It’s a good device but sometimes it seems too like babbling voices. It’s not a good sign when you groan when yet another narrative voice is introduced, especially when it’s in a new typeface as well.

There’s also the juxtaposition of oral and written storytelling, of the folk memory versus the written memoir. One English character obsesses in writing down the Afghan oral stories he hears. There are some fantastic moments of storytelling, such as the repetition of “and the snow was crimson with blood” near the end.

Yet the overall impression is that the structure is too fragmentary. I didn’t engage with any of the key narrators, I didn’t become invested in the stories being told. And in a novel about storytelling, I think that’s a flaw.

Daughter of Fortune

Monday, 31 May 2010

I went to the annual Bristol Comics Expo last weekend. I’ve been going for many years, as it’s a great chance to see many friends from further up-country who never make it further west. The downside this year was that I couldn’t spend the nights in the con bar as usual. Well, I could have been there but watching others get drunk when I can’t just depresses me. So while my husband was off drinking beer, I settled down in the hotel room with a book.

Daughter of Fortune

Isabel Allande
(Flamingo, 1999 – now published under Harper Perennial)

The baby Eliza was found on the Sommers’ doorstep in Chile in the 1830s. She’s taken in and raised by spinster Rose Sommers and cook Mama Fresia. Rose’s brother Jeremy runs the British Import and Export Company and constantly worries about their reputation. Her other brother, John, is a sea captain. As Eliza grows up, she straddles the English ex-pat world and that of the Chileans before idealised notions of romance send her to California during the 1849 Gold Rush. In the wake of her fleeing, the careful fa├žades of the Sommers siblings crumble revealing how Rose has dealt with her lost lover and how many secrets the bluff and open John actually has.

This is a romantic adventure novel, fast-paced and restless. Just when you have grasped a world, Eliza moves on to another. She is constantly escaping: from the confines of the ex-pat culture, from Chile, from her gender, to a ship’s hold, a travelling brothel and San Francisco. This contrasts with Rose who had a similar teenage passion stifled and escapes only in her mind. Rose is unable to leave the past behind whereas Eliza flings it aside.

Each character gets their own voice, their own history introduced as they arrive in the story. So the arrival of Tao Chi’en, a healer, sends the plot off to Imperial China as we learn of his childhood, training and marriage. This can sometimes be distracting but it forces a useful breathing space in Eliza’s adventures that prevents her story from becoming entirely implausible.

This is a highly enjoyable and escapist novel that includes unpleasant scenes that are never treated glibly.

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