Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pride and Prejudice below stairs

I've heard it said that the market is saturated with Pride and Prejudice sequels, most of them poor to dreadful. But there are three I recommend, and I'll review one of them here: Jo Baker’s Longbourn. The others which I hope to return to some day are P D James’s Death Comes to Pemberley and Maya Slater’s The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy.

Longbourn has been described as a distant cousin to Pride and Prejudice, one that interacts with its relative rarely. But where it does interact, it does so in unsettling ways. 

Whereas Jane Austen left the Bennet servants as faceless ciphers, in Longbourn they are the central characters, and in particular Sarah whose romantic life mirrors Elizabeth's from Pride and Prejudice, and is equally predictable.

“If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats,  Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them”. Baker gives details more sordid than this, which I won't go into here, of the range of menial tasks needed to maintain an upper class Regency household. The workload is excessive for the four thinly-stretched servants, and when a new footman is added, this provides welcome relief.  Nonetheless at first Sarah is suspicious of James, and suspicion hardens into dislike, as she finds herself drawn toward the charming footman at neighbouring Netherfield, who is also the first black man Sarah has ever seen ...

That’s the romance.

But you could say that Longbourn’s main subject is the life of the lower classes in Regency England, the deprivation and suffering that produced the gilded world through which Austen's characters moved, with several hints at suppressed class conflict.

"A private had been flogged"

I've more to say about this book, but if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice you may not find my thoughts entirely riveting, so I'll put them in a separate page.  What I want to dwell on now is a pivotal episode in Longbourn when Sarah, while on an errand in Meryton, is traumatised by unintentionally witnessing a soldier being flogged.

Here's the peg it hangs from, the final sentence of Chapter 12 in Pride and Prejudice:-

"Catherine and Lydia had information for them of a different sort. Much had been done and much had been said in the regiment since the preceding Wednesday: several of the officers had dined lately with their uncle, a private had been flogged, and it had actually been hinted that Colonel Forster was going to be married."

William Cobbett (1763-1835)
opposed flogging
Catherine and Lydia, two silly teenage girls, are the younger sisters of the heroine Lizzy Bennet.  England is at war with Napoleon and a militia regiment has been stationed locally; it appears though to have little to do with the defence of the realm. In the foregoing passage Austen reveals military life as a routine of trivial social engagements and gossip, whilst exposing the vacuity of the sisters and their indiscriminate admiration of the militia officers.

And what of the flogging of the private? It's shocking that this unspeakably brutal event should be mixed in amongst trivialities; but the question arises, is it shocking to modern readers only? Or did Jane Austen expect her readers to find it shocking too?  This is something that has bothered me for a while.

I found the answer at a class I attended last autumn.  It's in a 2002 essay on Jane Austen and the military, which convincingly argues that when Austen has the sisters relate the whipping of an ordinary soldier in the same breath as polite dinners and gossip, she does so to expose their moral sense as sadly lacking.  And a significant fact revealed in the essay is that several members of Austen’s social circle signed a motion objecting to flogging.  (The motion was advocated by William Cobbett, someone I've crossed swords with over irregular verbs, so I welcome this opportunity to rehabilitate him.)

Returning to Jo Baker’s book, when we learn James’s backstory, we find he was flogged for desertion in Portugal.  The charge was false. But James recovers from the ordeal and subsequently really does desert, living the rest of his life in fear of discovery, which gives the narrative its shape.  Sarah, who due to her previous accidental encounter with a flogging knows what it entails, discovers the scars on James’s back and understands what he has endured. It's a gripping read.  I wonder whether it matters if you're not familiar with Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps not but it's hard for me to say.

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