I can't be the first person to wonder why an established author would choose to write a sequel, prequel or alternative version of a much loved classic. Yet many have done so. Indeed, the estate of Ian Fleming has turned the writing of further James Bond books into something of a franchise for which well known authors appear to queue.
And this can be dispiriting in that, just as the film of the book very, very rarely lives up to the book, so these follow-ons seem to lose something of the essential spirit and inspiration of the original author.
Taking all that on board, if you still felt so inclined why would you then take on the classic of classics - Pride and Prejudice? Surely foolhardy in the extreme? And yet, here comes a rather good read by an author we already like.
The name Longbourn will ring bells for many of you, being the family home of Mr and Mrs Bennet and their five daughters. And it is also the title of a new book by Jo Baker with the byline, at least on the proof copy I have read, Pride and Prejudice - The Servants’ Story. In a brief endpiece, Ms Baker is at pains to explain how her novel was planned to intersect with the story of the original without upsetting any fans of that book. And it is true she has taken no liberties. In fact, the regular occasions where the original has to make its presence known are done with tact and sensitivity. (Or dare one say ‘sense and sensibility’?)
We are already fans of Ms Baker’s work since she is the author of The Telling which we featured in a previous issue of newbooks. And our choice was obviously well made as feedback brought many favourable comments.
So, how good is Longbourn? Well, we’re left in no doubt that life under stairs is hard – for readers in the soft south you might need to look up the word chilblains as they are mentioned several times (in my experience this painful affliction is unknown below the Midlands!). The drudgery is endless and the thanks – even from Elizabeth and Jane – is minimal. So there’s need for some love interest and lo, enter stage left James Smith . . . only to be upstaged by Ptolemy Bingley, an exotic black servant to Mr Bingley (servants apparently adopted the family name as a means of recognition).
Sarah, our heroine, is beset by doubts and tempted by a life in London – even at the risk of losing her good name – but the fates intervene, as you might have guessed they would. As the story above stairs ticks away (one can feel quite smug about understanding the subtle nuances Baker includes) so unfold some twists and turns below to which Ms Austen would most certainly not have resorted. No matter, they make for something of a surprising incursion into the original story and while this may jar for the purists, those folks are already secure in their love of P&P.
It is completely apparent that the planning and writing of this book has been a labour of love and I reached the end wanting to re-read the original which felt like an accolade to Longbourn and Ms Baker. Indeed, this feels like an author who has hit her stride and we expect to see further accomplishments from her in due course.
Highly recommended – and would be great for a reading group discussion!