Longbourn and Sense and Sensibility

By Jo Baker
By Joanna Trollope

Jane Austen has always been a popular author, but it’s only recently that she has graduated from having a cult following (her fans are known as Janeites) to becoming a multimedia industry.

Some landmarks along the way include the now famous 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, a 2005 Hollywood film production of the same, the publication in 2009 of the bestselling mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (there have been more than 100 literary adaptation of P&P in the last decade alone), and the announcement just this year that Austen would be appearing on the Bank of England’s new 10-pound note.

But for now, 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, which is as good an excuse as any to throw a party.

In the spirit of making old things new again, Jo Baker’s Longbourn and Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility re-visit two beloved classics, and reveal in the process just why Austen remains so much our contemporary.

Longbourn takes its title from the name of the Bennet family estate in Pride and Prejudice, with the twist here being that the old story is re-told from the point of view of the domestic staff. Right from the first chapter we realize we are in a different world. It’s laundry day and Longbourn introduces us to the round of hard, muscular labour that makes up a housemaid’s life.

Baker doesn’t mind rubbing our noses in it. Not only do we hear of aching blisters and chilblains and slipping in hog manure while lugging the water in from the pump, but it’s also that time of the month in a house full of young women, so the napkins are soaking in a separate tub smelling “uneasily of the butcher’s shop.”

Bodily fluids are Baker’s favourite way of grounding us in naturalistic detail, leading to numerous references to stains of sweat, vomit, milk, sperm — and, yes, the ladies’ “monthlies.” While it may be true that no woman is a heroine to her laundress, Baker isn’t interested in de-mythologizing Austen.

Rest assured that Elizabeth Bennet is still adorable and that when Mr. Darcy makes his appearance he will be all that and more: “So smooth, and so big, and of such substance … it was as though (he) belonged to a different order of creation entirely, and moved in a separate element.”

But this is all background.

While Longbourn gives us a more modern, socially-minded perspective on familiar characters and events, Baker’s main story — which has to do with a skivvy named Sarah falling in love with a mysterious new footman — doesn’t mess with the essential romance formula that Austen did so much to define two centuries ago.

Joanna Trollope doesn’t mess with success either, and her Sense and Sensibility is a fairly close reworking of Austen’s novel of the same name, adapted to life in the early 21stt century.

Indeed, it’s surprising how little she has had to change, aside from supplying the characters with iPhones so they can text each other, and adding other cosmetic updates. The Dashwood women are still delightful (Elinor is now a budding architect and Marianne plays the guitar), and the young men feckless and unreliable. Though they don’t use words like feckless any more. Instead, the cads are known as shagbandits.

And it all still works. Why?

In part because both Baker and Trollope are proficient authors who handle the material so well, but also because Austen, like Shakespeare, is timeless. You can put her in modern dress or take her upstairs dramas downstairs, but no matter how many changes you make, her essential concerns, and even much of her morality, remain contemporary.

At one point in Trollope’s book, for example, Elinor expostulates with her mother, “Ma, this isn’t 1810, for God’s sake. Money doesn’t dictate relationships.”

Oh, but it does Elinor. It does! Perhaps as much today as it did during the Regency. We still have a class system, after all, and that means the business of finding a mate remains a perfect subject for a novelist. And Austen’s other main concern, the matter of inheritance, is no less relevant. All that wealth piled up by the boomers is going somewhere. Our McMansions are this century’s Pemberleys and Norland Parks.

But i’s not all about the material world. Austen’s character types are still with us — the proud and the prejudiced, the sensible and sensitive — and her scale of values hasn’t changed much either. Her heroes and heroines represent the same kinds of personalities we admire most today, and her villains embody qualities we immediately recognize and despise.

True, now they have sex instead of “making love” (which didn’t mean having sex, back in the day), but that’s not such a big deal. The really important things in life — love, family, money — endure.

So Austen keeps right on rolling into her third century, still giving no indication that she’ll be leaving us any time soon.

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 21, 2013.

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