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.

—Miriam

Books In Light of Today’s Tragedies

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After a week like the last one, I struggle with what to write in this venue. It would be silly of us to overemphasize the importance of books in light of the recent events. I’ve turned away from the half-finished pile of titles on my nightstands and tables to watch the news incessantly, even during a road trip to southern California visiting old friends and family. As I introduce my infants for the first time to important people in my life, I can’t help but feel the shakiness of the world they’re entering and worry about how they will understand the tragedies of our nation.

Before bedtime we hold our babies in our laps and read them a story, just as generations before us all over the world have put their kids to sleep. These enduring books, like Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? are a comfort: stories that remain unchanged in a constantly changing world. I see the safety these stories provide and they reassure me that my kids will always have one place to go where they will feel safe.

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Books serve many purposes, but today I’m thinking about how they can make you feel at home. Safely tucked in bed, when I’m scared and lonely and worried during the day, I can still crack open my old copy of Pride and Prejudice and know a world where children do not die and true love prevails. The biggest problems are who to marry. I know I’ll turn back again and again to these safe worlds and appreciate the comfort they provide. That’s the role that books, and the safe haven of bookstores, play in relation to today’s tragic events. For that I’m deeply grateful.

—Miriam

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?

—Miriam

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