Author: Jo Baker
Published: Doubleday 2013
First line: “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.”
Rating: 3.6 out of 5 soiled menstrual rags belonging to Elizabeth Bennet
Recommended if you like: glimpses into the dirty underside of prim English country life
I kept putting off this review, and I couldn’t figure out why. At first I thought it was just because I was busy, but no, I was avoiding it even when I had plenty of time to work on it. And I wasn’t shoving it to the back of my mind the way I do with things I really just don’t want to get around to; no, I was thinking about it all the time. In the shower. On the bus. While listening to an OKCupid date talk about something hideously boring. And most of what I was thinking was, why am I so annoyed with this book?
As it happens, a lot of people were annoyed with this book. Specifically, Jane Austen fans were annoyed with this book. Longbourn is the story of the servants in the Bennet household while the events of Pride and Prejudice are unfolding. Baker’s idea is to give voice to the characters that Austen uses as window-dressing, primarily Sarah (the maid), Mrs. Hill (the housekeeper), and James (the footman.) She is for the most part very gentle with the original narrative, preserving it completely and using the alternative perspective of the servants to actually deepen, rather than subvert, the characters as Austen has drawn them: Wickham’s nastiness is underscored by his inappropriate attentions to 13-year-old servant girl Polly; Mr. Darcy’s pridefulness is emphasized by the way in which the servants are simply not noticed by him at all; and Mr. Collins’ pompousness is lent believability by glimpses of a hidden insecurity and loneliness.
The story of Pride and Prejudice itself is not the story of the book, however. The familiar narrative is only the skeleton of the book, and the combined inner lives, concerns, dreams, fears, and private dramas of the servants make up the actual flesh and blood. (All this talk about internal organs leads me to point out that it is not related in either concept or structure to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Oh, now you’re all sad? Shut up.). Longbourn is about being a servant in Austen’s England, and it’s a pretty interesting glimpse. Baker keeps a believable period tone to her writing, and I didn’t feel at any point like she was going for shock value; the servants’ thoughts and observations on, say, Elizabeth Bennet’s armpit hair seemed perfectly believable to me.
(Baker does write about filth and sex and sweat and shit, but on a general scale of gentility, it reads a hell of a lot more like Austen than, say, Bukowski. You’d never know that from Austen fans’ reviews of the book, however. “Does it have to be so dirty?” they complain. “It’s so icky! Menstrual blood! Mud! Sex! Ew! Does she have to be so heavy-handed?”)
So why couldn’t I write the celebratory post I wanted to? What was keeping me from flipping the bird at the squicked-out prissypants Austen fans and giving the book all, or at least more, of the stars?
Two words: Ptolemy Bingley.
Ptolemy Bingley is her major, major insertion into Austen’s narrative. He’s the half-black servant of the Bingleys (yeah, you remember him, right? OH WAIT) who was born a slave because the Bingleys got their wealth from plantations.
Now, in the original, Austen doesn’t state why the Bingleys are wealthy, but someone over at maidenly delicacy of speech makes a smart point about how unlikely the Bingleys are as plantation owners; if anyone were going to have plantation holdings, the Darcys would have been much more likely candidates. Yeah, it’s a stretch. But that’s not the problem.
The problem is that Ptolemy Bingley is an outstanding example of a Token Black Character in a novel that was ostensibly created specifically to address silenced and invisible characters. The fact that Baker turns around and precisely replicates Austen’s use of less socially-visible people as set decoration….well, it kinda rankled me. Like, a lot. Like, a close-to-book-ruiningly amount.
Calm down, you might say, it’s not that big a deal, surely, it’s just one weak character. Except Ptolemy Bingley is the only character Baker invents from scratch, and he’s a hole in her story big enough to drive a carriage through. His role is to show up, tempt Sarah with his exotic otherness so she can Dream Of Greater Things (rather nauseatingly, she longs for the sunny warmth of the place where he used to be a slave), and then get tossed aside for the (white) hero, the One With A Tortured Past, whose experiences in the war were just like slavery! (Yes, she actually makes that comparison.)
Never mind that Ptolemy Bingley’s tortured past involves actually, um, being a slave; Baker isn’t interested in that, but rather in how his otherness can develop Sarah as a character. Once he’s filled her sufficiently full of daydreams whose scope goes beyond the Bennet household, Ptolemy is tossed aside. He’s her first kiss, and she’s dazzled enough by him to set off for London after him; but then the White Guy With A Tortured Past Whom She Really Loves (Really!) asks her to stay behind and that’s that. Good-bye Ptolemy.
Ptolemy is a token character to end all token characters. He exists wholly as a symbol, and while it would be problematic enough in any book, I found it frankly unforgivable in this one.
Ptolemy disrupts the author’s entire stated purpose. And as distance grew between me and my last reading of the book, I found myself growing less and less enchanted with the concept of the novel – initially one I had found refreshing, intriguing, and well-executed – and more and more infuriated. I mean, why make Ptolemy black at all? Why go to all the trouble of constructing an unnecessary and implausible backstory about the Bingleys as slave-owners only to completely fail to discuss, develop, or otherwise engage with the hugely troubling implications that characterization opens? In doing so, Baker creates an entire subset of characters who are now in exactly the same circumstances as the ones she wrote this book about: people who are silenced and invisible; people who, for narrative purposes, only exist as background decoration.
tl;dr: Longbourn is a seriously interesting novel for anyone who likes Austen but also has a vested interest in reframed or hidden perspectives – even just as a case study of how to turn a great idea into an embarrassing inversion of exactly what you’re trying to create.
What about you, readers – what authors have you seen wind up guilty of exactly the same problems their narratives were supposedly addressing? What tokenized characters have bothered you to the point where you had to revise your whole assessment of a piece of writing?