Message in a Bottle
Pride and Prejudice, The Maid’s Version

imageOctober brings us an interesting effort to capitalize on the magic of both Jane Austen and Downton Abbey. Author Jo Baker turns Pride and Prejudice on its head, offering a glimpse into the servants’ lives at the Bennet household.

Before you roll your eyes, pause and hear me out. I am not a fan of Austen reinventions. I am, however, a Downton Abbey watcher (thanks to James), although in my humble opinion the show jumped the shark after the first season or so. I also have this habit of sighing when offered a novel that so clearly has been written with the intention of catering to the market. When I worked as an editor, I can’t tell you how many times I reviewed book proposals billed as “Jurassic Park meets The Da Vinci Code" or "Romeo and Juliet retold as a western” or some other premise clearly riding the coattails of an earlier success. I understand how necessary it is for authors to appeal to a mass audience nowadays, but I always worry that a gimmick is just a pig with lipstick. Give me great writing and an original story any day over a book that’s trying too hard. So when I see a new novel billed as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, I’m skeptical. The good news is, Longbourn is what it claims to be, and refreshingly so.

Longbourn is a slow burn (no pun intended), growing in power the further you read. I didn’t want to like it necessarily, but when I felt myself getting sucked in too much to put it down, I conceded that Baker has done something right. The smartest thing she did is avoid an attempt at Austen’s voice, and Longbourn succeeds as a completely different type of novel than Pride and Prejudice. Sarah, the young maid, is our heroine and she is easy to like; her ambitions are small and her life of crippling housework and drudgery makes her a character to both pity and admire. She doesn’t possess the sparkling wit of Elizabeth Bennet; instead Sarah is humble and introspective. Her steadiness gives Longourn a refreshing heart and soul. It makes sense that the servants wouldn’t be as lighthearted as the masters, because there life simply isn’t as carefree.

The Bennets’ staff is small, led by an older married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and their two orphan housemaids, Sarah and Polly. A mysterious man named James joins the staff at the beginning of the book, getting off on the wrong foot with Sarah and putting a series of events in motion. The Pride and Prejudice plot is the backdrop for what happens in the servants’ lives, but don’t expect the Bennets’ storyline to sparkle the way it does in the original. Here the interchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy are entirely missing, so the only juicy back story Longbourn offers surround Wickham and Mr. Bennet. I won’t give those twists away. Mr. Collins is also portrayed in a much more sympathetic light. Essentially the plot revolves around Sarah, her flirtation with a black footman who works for the Bingleys, and what happens between her and James. Steeped in the grittiness of a servant’s life, the outcome resonates in a way that the upstairs characters’ fates never could.

On a broader scale, Baker’s vision is a historical novel as much as a romance, examining a life of endless servitude in the English countryside. If readers can look past the Pride and Prejudice connection and see Longbourn as a standalone, I suspect the book will be more appreciated. For those that love the Bennets, the way the servants focus on the flaws of the upstairs characters could inspire some defensiveness. But when we read Pride and Prejudice, did we ever stop to think of the consequences of Elizabeth dirtying her petticoats? The servants are the ones who pay the price. If you’re able to distance yourself from the Elizabeth in the original, gaining Sarah’s perspective is rewarding and eye-opening.

There is one plot twist at the end of Longbourn that feels like a stretch. It involves a major character from P&P and casts a whole new light on the original story. I’ll be curious to hear how others digested it.


The Four Elements

Literacy advocate and super-librarian Nancy Pearl has a theory:

It seems to me that all works of fiction and narrative nonfiction are broadly made up of four experiential elements: story, character, setting, and language. I call these “doorways,” because when we open a book, read the first few pages, and choose to go on, we enter the world of that book. And I’ve come to believe we can help readers better choose their next book by looking at the proportion of these four elements.

A book with story as its biggest doorway is one that readers describe as a page-turner, a book that they can’t put down because they desperately want to discover what happens next.

A book with character as its biggest doorway is a book in which readers feel so connected with the characters that when the book is over they feel they’ve lost someone dear to them.

Readers of novels in which setting is most prominent say things like “I felt like I was there,” or, as one man told me, “When I finished Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, I immediately made plans to go to New Mexico—I had to see for myself where it took place.”

A book in which language is the major doorway leads readers to utter sentences like “I read more slowly because I wanted to savor the language” or “I’m not even sure what the book is about, but I loved the way the author wrote.”

imageSimple, yet remarkably true, I’d say. It’s pretty easy to think of books that are entered primarily through story. The oeuvre of Dan Brown comes immediately to mind; he’s so interested in plot that he passes over the niceties of language and character development almost entirely. If it were possible to quantify the emphasis on each element in The Da Vinci Code, Brown would probably score close to ten out of ten on plot, and a one or two on words and people. He does like fairly exotic locations, so give him middling marks on setting. I should point out that I’m not talking about quality here. A heavy weight on one side of the scale isn’t bad or good, it’s just how some authors (and readers) like it.

imageimageThrillers and mysteries by definition are story-focused, although some such writers tweak up other dials on their authorial equalizers. Cara Black and Donna Leon write whodunits, but the starring roles in their novels are played by the cities of Paris and Venice respectively. Another name in this category is Alexander McCall Smith. Plot is crucial to him, despite that the crises in his books aren’t usually of great consequence. Like a cotton candy vendor, he can spin a confectionary treat out of almost nothing (in his Dr. von Igelfeld books, even a missing button can prove dramatic). But his real appeal is the way in which he combines his plotting with setting. His No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is immeasurably enriched by the sunny Botswanan landscape, and his Isabel Dalhousie mysteries are inseparable from the cloudy Scottish clime.


Character-driven works include those by Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist) and Helen Simonson (Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand). We can probably throw Flaubert and Austen into this group, too. For proof, let me ask a multiple-choice question. Who is the least vivid in your mind’s eye: A) Madame Bovary, B) Elizabeth Bennet, or C) your cousin? You may have chosen the only real person on the list, but I bet you had to think about it first.

imageThe doorway of language is entered the most quickly, I think. Opening a random page and reading a single sentence often does the trick. Look at the first line of Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes: “He is met at a crossroads on a windy night, the moon in tatters and the mist unclothing stars, the way from Ask to Owlerdale: a man in black, white-headed, with a three-string fiddle in his pack.” It doesn’t matter who the man is or where on earth Owlerdale might be if you’re the sort of reader who perks up her ears when she hears that the mist is “unclothing” the stars. Annie Dillard must be one of those readers, because she’s certainly one of those writers: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” That’s the kind of attitude that produces sentences like these: “We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home.” Out of context, it’s hard to be sure what that means, but it’s beautiful music nonetheless.

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Are there any writers who balance all the elements evenly? Impossible to say. We’re talking about art, not science, so there are no lab-coated technicians to take measurements for us. Still, I suspect that authors who fire on all cylinders are out there, and that they’re the ones who attract the most fervent followers. John Irving seems to be an equal-opportunity author, popular for his rollicking plots, his strong characters, and his expressive voice alike. I mentioned Jane Austen above as an excellent example of a character creator, but she’s also admired for her careful, cutting diction, her satisfying story resolutions, and her evocation of the 19th-century English village. Early fan George Henry Lewes fawned, “First and foremost let Austen be named, the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” Sounds to me like he’s acknowledging her skill in opening all four doorways at the same time.

My one quibble with all this is that Pearl’s first three experiential elements are illusions created by the fourth. What we call “story,” “character,” and “setting” exist only as words, so I’d say language is ultimately the only real entrance into narrative. A quibble, as I say, because in practice, hers is a tremendously useful model. Considering how your favorite books balance these four elements can be a fascinating and productive exercise.


Snooping Through Scribbles

Nancy Drew

I’ll be honest. I’m a snoop. I love opening up an old copy of a book and finding notes written in the margin, or any other sort of clue as to what someone else felt while reading. Roger has some really cool old editions tucked around the store even though they’re not for sale. Next time you’re in Island Books, ask him about them. His stories will be worth your time.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in new books coming out that I forget to look at the old ones, but the other day I was straightening up at home and found myself staring at the bookshelf in this picture. These old Nancy Drew books belonged to my husband’s mom when she was a kid. Since she’s no longer with us and I’ll never get to meet her, I got this idea in my head that maybe, just maybe, she had written something in her old books.

A few hours later, I realized that she must have been far too polite to tarnish the pages. All I could find was her name, written in clean cursive on the first pages. I was disappointed, but not surprised.

Then I turned to another shelf and zeroed in on my dad’s old collection of Jane Austen novels. He’s still around, but even he can’t read his own handwriting. (Yes, apparently my dad had to read Austen in college. Men do occasionally pick one of these up! Although I don’t think he had regrets about giving his copies away.) Look how old these editions look.

Another hour wasted as I sifted through more yellowing pages, looking for clues. Here, I had more luck, sort of. He underlined phrases and made notes, but the problem was, his handwriting is, and always has been, illegible. I think he might have even scribbled a grocery list in there, although I can’t be sure if the first word was “beloved” or “bread.” The most legible writing was this list comparing Emma’s character with Miss Bates. The pencil was so faded it was difficult to get it to show up in a picture, but I tried. Don’t give yourself a headache trying to read it.

From what I can tell, he noted that what Emma and Miss Bates had in common was that they were both unmarried and smart. That’s where the similarities ended. Emma was clever, attractive, and proud, while Miss Bates was simpler, plain, and humble. On the next page (not shown here), he drew an elaborate chart that seems to show how their character traits influenced the direction of their lives. The problem is, I couldn’t make out what it said. Frustrated, I gave up and started reading the book myself (for the eighth time), because if you can’t coast by on someone else’s notes, might as well make some of your own, right?

Enough about my own library. Will you take the time to share some of the best scribbles you’ve discovered in old editions?


B is for Book, Among Other Things

It’s probably the imminent end of summer that’s got me thinking about travel and all the places I didn’t go this year. To put a positive spin on it, I’m getting a head start on planning for a fantastic vacation next year, if only in fantasy. As I was nodding off last night, imagining the thousand places to see before I die and wondering how to restrict myself to a reasonable number, I had the goofy idea of visiting only those cities that started with a particular letter of the alphabet. But which? Maybe I wasn’t exhaustive enough, but I pretty quickly decided on the letter that gave me the best options and began assembling my reading list. All aboard for …

Barcelona: Castles, cathedrals, and culture abound in this Catalan capital, but the food and weather alone would make it worth a visit. Richard Hughes’s Barcelona is a fantastic history and guidebook to the riches it offers, and any number of novelists and storytellers have beautifully painted the city’s portrait. Mercè Rodoreda is one of its most noted native authors, but for sheer fun, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a tale of intrigue and romance along shadowy streets and dusty libraries, can’t be beat. It’s the kind of intellectual conspiracy mystery that Dan Brown can only aspire to.

Bucharest: Romania’s years behind the Iron Curtain kept its unique charms hidden for many years, but its capital is now easily accessible. Filip Florian’s The Days of the King provides an amusing, imaginative look at how the country carved itself a place between larger empires such as the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. Speaking of the latter …

Budapest: Widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, the city is divided by the Danube River, and served for centuries as the crossroad between Western and Eastern cultures. Peter Esterhazy’s Celestial Harmonies attempts to sum up much of Hungary’s history through the story of one aristocratic family, while Gyula Krudy and Ferenc Karinthy evoke different kinds of dreamy strangeness in their shorter works.

Bruges and Brussels: Two delightful stops in one delightful country. The gorgeous canals of the former gave it the title “Venice of the North,” and Georges Rodenbach captured its melancholy quality in Bruges-la-Morte, a book that inspired innumerable pilgrimages by gloomy young people—the Goths of their day—in the early part of the 20th century. Brussels is the capital of the European Union, but it’s also the capital of the art of comics. The leading name here is Tintin, whose adventures are fun for all ages. Steven Spielberg’s epic movie should prove that all over again when it’s released in late December. And we can’t forget that B also stands for beer—Belgium is certainly the greatest brewing nation on earth. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof: All Belgian Beers.

Bath: This English resort town deserves a visit for many reasons, but the main one is to pay homage to the memory of the inestimable Jane Austen, one of the most tough-minded and technically perfect novelists who ever lived. How she put those skills in the service of such superficially humorous and entertaining romances is one of the wonders of the world. Her Persuasion is my favorite of her works and conveniently, the most Bath-centric as well.

Bordeaux: This gives us a jumping-off point for the entire wine region of France, and I don’t suppose I have to convince anyone to spend some valuable vacation time there. Robert Parker’s guide is known as “The Bible” by oenophiles everywhere.

Bombay: OK, so I suppose we really should be calling it Mumbai, but I’m leaving it on the itinerary anyway. You could spend a lifetime here and not see it all, but Salman Rushdie came as close as anyone to describing it in Midnight’s Children, a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1981. Not only that, it won the so-called Booker of Bookers as the best of all such winners in 1993, and capped things off by doing it again for the 40th anniversary of the prize in 2008. It’s like the Meryl Streep of fiction.

Bangkok: John Burdett’s sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious series of mysteries set in one of the most exotic cities in the world kicks off with Bangkok 8, a perfect book to pull out of your pocket when you’re stuck in an elephant traffic jam.

Buenos Aires: At least two monumentally important authors have called this city home, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. I’m sure both of them enjoyed a glass of wine, a hearty steak, and a tango when they weren’t writing their signature works, Ficciones and Hopscotch.

Boston: Back on home shores, we can explore one of our oldest cities with all its Revolutionary history, while savoring its recent sports success (or rooting against it, as I would). Dennis Lehane has become something of a local laureate, mostly by writing contemporary mysteries and thrillers set in the seedier parts of town, but his The Given Day takes on the sprawling, brawling Boston of the period just after the first world war, depicting two families, one black, one white, swept up in a maelstrom of revolutionaries and anarchists, immigrants and ward bosses, Brahmins and ordinary citizens, all engaged in a battle for survival and power.

Brooklyn: Now it’s just one borough among five, but it was once one of the largest cities in America in its own right. Too many writers have made Brooklyn their home to choose one emblematic figure, but we don’t have to—Evan Hughes recently covered them all in Literary Brooklyn, a survey of a place that’s becoming to this decade what Paris was to the ’20s.

Whew. I haven’t even mentioned Berlin, Beirut, Bogota, Beijing, Bergen, Brisbane, Bern, Bologna, Berkeley, Belfast, Belmopan, or Blubber Bay, British Columbia yet, but the jet lag might kill us if I do. I’m pretty sure my chosen letter is unbeatable, but I’m throwing down the gauntlet in case anyone thinks it can be topped.


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