SoCal in August can be quite comfortable if you like saunas. Every morning, you shower and style your hair. Clean and well groomed the way you like it. Everything except makeup, which you haven’t worn in months and dread the thought of ever wearing again. Once this is over. Once the world reopens and there’s no mask to justify leaving the house without your war paint: one swipe across your forehead, another down your nose, a thumbprint in the curve of your chin to complete the exclamation point, then two fierce streaks along your cheekbones, spread in ever-widening circles, like badly applied rouge, with fingertips that still feel like 3:00 a.m.
But the TV/film industry has only just reopened and early morning call times are still a few nightmares away. That is, if COVID-19 doesn’t kill us first. But if worse comes to worse, you can always ask someone to cough in your direction and guarantee you a safe, clean hospital bed, where no one will expect you to do anything but live or die. This makes your Auntie Sheila laugh and laugh and laugh. At least someone thinks you’re joking.
Every morning, you shower and style your hair and listen to Cambridge ICE’s Bitesize Lecture Library. Because you’ll never live through 30 five- to ten-minute videos without something to do with your hands. Like that Train muse who “checks out Mozart while she does Tae Bo,” except that Mozart deserves your undivided attention, and you don’t “check him out” any more than you “bump” Bach, Jose Calderon. Stop lying. Stop smirking. No one remembers your name.
Every morning, you shower and style your hair and step outside. This makes you wet within minutes and not in a good way. Behind your neck. Between your boobs (if you have them) and under them (even if you don’t), so that your bra is damp along the band when you finally get to take it off (yes, there is a God), and it’s no wonder that you’d rather shower than water your lawn, if there’s another drought on top of everything else, and anyway, you can always landscape with succulents. That’s how you can tell the eco-friendly sheep from the goats who won’t be raptured with the rest. Lamb blood on lintels was too Jewish for the Chosen People of Hollywood, so they settled for succulents and manmade grass.
Every day, you shower and style your hair and try to immerse yourself in Longbourn (2013), an Upstairs, Downstairs (1971) take on Pride and Prejudice (1813) that requires as much patience as the title suggests. At first, you’re pleased to get your hands on a new, contemporary novel. Aren’t you always trying to bully yourself into the
20th 21st century?
“Can’t we join the living?”
“We’ve been through this—”
“You might like it.”
“Don’t be silly. Everything interesting happened before we were born and everyone worth knowing is dead.”
“Fine! But don’t blame me if we end up alone.”
“Well, I don’t see anyone else in the room.”
Unlike the author, Jo Baker, you have a habit of rereading the same old classics. Her attempt to riff off of Jane Austen explains why. Disclaimer: That doesn’t mean that Longbourn is a badly written book that other people won’t enjoy. Other people enjoy a lot of things that you wouldn’t read. You’re just in a Mood and you like writing when you’re in a Mood. As D. H. Lawrence said:
I like to write when I feel spiteful. It’s like having a good sneeze.
First, each chapter of Longbourn starts with a snippet from Pride and Prejudice (P&P), which leads you to believe that you’ll be experiencing those parts of the story from the servants’ perspective. In reality, many of the things that happen above stairs in P&P are mirrored below stairs in Longbourn, in the same way that the Downton Abbey graphic is a reflection of the Abbey. So, Longbourn, Volume II, Chapter XII (“She was but then fifteen, which must be her excuse”) is about the maid Polly, not about Georgiana Darcy or even about Lydia Bennet.
Second, Baker’s initial reason for postponing the “epic” romance between the maid and the footman feels completely inadequate: Sarah hurries around a corner and James accidentally hits her with a wheelbarrow and makes her bleed (I.iv.). Baker doesn’t retell the scene from James’s perspective, and his reason for not apologizing profusely enough to suit her ladyship is never explained. So, all we get are several chapters of Sarah flouncing around as if she hadn’t been trying to run into him before he actually hit her, and he (inevitably) ends up thinking that she and her working-class airs are the best things since buttered muffins.
In fact, unlike Sarah, James is so content with his lot in life—and/or so taken with her—that he never even looks at any of the Bennet sisters, though he’s constantly driving them about. Touching, but—what? Even a gentleman of the world like Mr. Darcy notices Jane, though he isn’t initially taken with Elizabeth.
This brings us to another anomaly: Baker presents Ptolemy Bingley as a dashing gentleman-servant, but when he kisses Sarah, his breath tastes like “smoke and liquor and teeth and onions” (I.vii). This is evidently Baker’s way of teaching us that even if we do have the incomprehensibly good fortune to be kissed by someone that handsome, the experience may not be everything it’s cracked up to be. But some of us would as soon be taken for a dollar as a dime. We already know that Sarah will end up with James whether we like it or not. So, if Baker’s going to leave everything up to the mystical symbiosis known as chemistry, why not just up the ante by making Ptolemy minty fresh?
By the same token, Sarah sweats but never reeks and even manages to ameliorate “the day’s work” with hard soap and vanilla when she first visits James in the stable loft (II.xi.). If Baker’s going to let a sweaty maid who rarely bathes her entire body smell like vanilla, she might as well add a dash of cinnamon for good measure. Like vanilla (extract), cinnamon is a universally liked spice found in kitchens worldwide. It can also operate as an aphrodisiac.
In the same scene, when they’re taking things off to get things on, so to speak, James says, “It is impossible, Sarah. You have to understand that it’s impossible.” So, in the next paragraph, when her hand brushes a scar and he feels “that blank feeling where the nerve was gone” and you don’t know exactly where her hand is, your mind jumps to The Sun Also Rises (1926), and you think, “Damn, that’s rough. This book is going to be more depressing than I thought.” But then you discover that the scars are only on his back, which would be a tragedy for a woman but no great deformity in a man. And having already been trundled down the garden path in the wheelbarrow and knowing that James is so honorable that he doesn’t even glance at the Bennets’ ankles, you don’t really care that he was flogged because you can already predict that he’s innocent. Which makes you roll your eyes and think, “Oh, come off it, James. There’s no reason why you can’t be together.” And sure enough . . .
The next chapter tells us that Sarah “crept chilly and barefooted across the yard” to James’s stable loft (II.xii.). It also says that “she knew that he was taking care not to burden her with pregnancy; she understood, and was grateful for it, and for the pleasure he nonetheless afforded her” (emphasis mine). But when Mrs. Hill asks her if she might be “in the breeding way,” she shakes her head: “she had already bled” (III.vii.). So, did they or didn’t they? If Baker isn’t going to show us, she could at least have the courtesy to tell us one way or the other.
In Vol. I, Ch. III, Sarah overhears a (wordless) argument between Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Hill, and we immediately put two and two together. Other parts of the book suggest that it was consensual and there’s still a measure of love on both sides. But that doesn’t explain why someone as selfish as Mr. Bennet would allow a servant like Mrs. Hill to go on living at Longbourn day after day, in such close proximity, as a constant reminder of his “shame” and a continual temptation to repeat it.
On a similar note, Sarah keeps comparing gentlemen like Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam to large hunks of meat, which seems a bit hypocritical from a feminist point of view (II.xiii, III.xix.). She also complains that they don’t notice her; they make her feel invisible. This is why she loves James. And the whole time you’re thinking, “Sweetheart, if you were pretty enough to be noticed, they’d be bending you over your own broom and sending you away barefoot and pregnant. The fact that they don’t ‘notice’ you is what makes them decent. Besides, you’re a maid. No one from your social class would expect to be noticed.” Honestly, what right does Baker have to be so American? She was born and raised in Lancashire and now lives in Lancaster with a husband so Irish that you can’t pronounce his name.
Then there’s the Napoleonic War interlude—the part where James is flogged and we learn that war is terrible (III.ii–iv.). Finally, at the end of Ch. II, they let us leave Spain. All we have to do is take the little boat to the bigger boat and we’ll be sailing home to England. But first, Sergeant Pye wants James to kill the horses. All he has to do is kill the horses. But James likes horses. He’s not just a footman; he’s a groom. Grooms like horses. James likes horses. He likes them better than children, apparently, because he sure as hell didn’t snap when he saw what Pye was doing to them. But instead of killing the horses (all the pretty horses), he ends up killing his superior officer.
This sort of explains why James has to lay low on the Spanish coast and lose his virginity to a beautiful Spanish widow named María (III.iii.). And why he’s content to work in a quiet, out-of-the-way spot like Longbourn. And why he’s disturbed by the arrival of the militia. But it doesn’t really explain how Mr. Wickham came to hear of it (II.xiv.). Unexpectedly clever chap Wickham to know so much and learn so little. And then, when the same “beast” that makes James murder Pye causes him to strike Wickham, he just leaves without a word of warning to anyone about Wickham’s intentions toward Polly.
And James’s melodramatic departure ends up being completely irrelevant because, by the time Sarah leaves service to go looking for him, she’s already decided that travel and London and life in the wide, wide world are empty without him. And far from being the dangerous, foolhardy venture that he and Mrs. Hill claim it’ll be before chemistry intervenes to make all reason superfluous, Sarah ultimately makes it all the way from Pemberley to Windermere (in a dress, mind) without being raped or murdered (III.xx.).
So, in the final analysis, we have an “epic” romance about ordinary people who find lasting contentment right where they started and true “adventure” in each other’s arms (cue Gone with the Wind score). And the irony is that we would’ve been willing to suspend disbelief for any number of these things if it hadn’t been for Baker’s decision to mutilate and deride Austen’s work. Baker could’ve recreated Austen’s world from the servants’ perspective or written an entirely original novel with her own cast of characters. Either one of those options would’ve gotten us on Sarah’s side instead of making us want to slap her. As it is, her smug working-class superiority grates on the nerves. Who is she to sympathize with Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins or decide that Lydia Bennet’s elopement is anything short of shameful? Who is Baker to give Elisabeth periods and armpit hair and then leave her pregnant and unfulfilled with Mr. Darcy without once allowing her to say anything remotely witty or clever (III.xix., etc.)? If you’re going to borrow someone else’s ideas as a catalyst for your own, you need to respect the preexisting framework. You can’t expect fans of a much more famous author to like your protagonist if she’s criticizing characters that we already know and love and expect to behave a certain way. You can’t expect us to share a wink and a nudge with you because you’ve altered someone else’s characters beyond description and then had the cheek to give them the same name. It’s like turning Harry Potter into a villain and then trying to convince us that Voldemort is “misunderstood.” If Austen created Mr. Collins a festering nincompoop, he’s a festering nincompoop, and it’s not for you or your protagonist or any of your other characters to suggest otherwise and pass judgement on the fans who love to laugh at him. And if Sarah were my maid, it’s more than shoe roses she’d be getting by proxy (I.xx.).
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