Another tough choice here. I very nearly caved and picked two but I’ve been doing so well so far with the Challenge that in the end I was able to narrow it down. There are, as most people are aware, quite a few Austen spin-offs. Of these, I have sampled more than one or two. To be truthful, I have a kind of love-hate relationship with spin-offs. I always want them to be good and if they’re not then I can be quite unforgiving. I can be particularly snarky if authors of spin-offs forget (what seem to me) basic facts from the source material. Still, when I find a spin-off that I like then I absolutely love it and that is certainly the case with today’s pick.
I have watched all 100 episodes of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries twice, giggled through Lost in Austen and had a whale of a time whenever I could persuade people to play Marrying Mr Darcy. Yet still, I knew Longbourn was the right pick because it does more than simply celebrate the original source material. Instead, it flips it on its head and suddenly we see things from an entirely new angle. To be clear, I am not disparaging the modernised re-tellings. I loved how Lizzie Bennet Diaries humanised Lydia and also the way that Jane was able to regain agency as a character. Even Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible made some interesting points about what a wimp Mr Bingley is. But in terms of how I read the original novels, nothing has caused as much of a shift as Longbourn which flips the narrative of Pride and Prejudice over and examines it from below stairs – this is what the servants saw. It is so easy to forget when reading Austen’s fiction that there is a host of characters who never speak and are rarely named. While contemporary readers would have ‘seen’ the servants, the modern reader has become blind to them. Reading Longbourn gave me new eyes and not just for this book.
In Sense and Sensibility, what would the two maidservants and the man from Norland think of having to uproot and travel with the newly impoverished mistress and her three girls? The novel implies that they were volunteers but surely such a step would have required thought. Having arrived, what would they have made of their new situation? Of Miss Elinor’s attempts at household economy? Young Miss Marianne’s getting her head turned by Mr Willoughby? Over at Mansfield Park, we know that it was a servant who betrayed Maria Bertram’s affair to her husband – surely though there is a back story that would have prompted that. At the novel’s opening, the servants also joined in the Bertram girls sneering at little Fanny’s clothes. Would they have continued to despise her as the years passed? Or would they have come to recognise that she made their lives easier, unlike her Aunt Norris. The latter must have been an unpopular figure below stairs, with her constant interference and busy-bodying slowing them all down. I imagine them rejoicing in her departure.
Emma is a novel that teeters on the brink between the haves and the have-nots, with figures such as the Martins not quite gentry yet and those like Miss Bates almost not gentry any more. Then there’s Miss Taylor, now a lady married to a gentleman and Mr Perry who can afford his own carriage – social mobility was possible. In Persuasion, the class struggle is more overt as men like Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth have become rich through labour and are now able to take possession of what the frivolous nobility can no longer afford. What would the servants have made of their new masters? Social change is occurring and it was about to puncture the comfortable world of the titled classes – bluntly the shades of Pemberley and Rosings were about to be polluted.
Once you know that you are looking for them, the silent role of the servant suddenly comes hugely significant. Servants mean power, authority and position. Mrs Elton pretends she has so many servants she cannot remember their names. Mrs Price rages at the only servant that she can afford, particularly when she sees her out and about on her day off. Elizabeth Elliot cringes over how few servants they have with them at Bath and frets over what people will think if they notice. Mary Musgrove and Mrs Musgrove each gossip about how the other cannot control her servants. In Longbourn, Mr Darcy scolds Sarah for not remaining in her position when her mistress needed her but ultimately tells his wife that Sarah is free to go since in England unfortunately they had not the power to force the issue. Servants in Austen are so often neither seen nor heard but it took a spin-off to remind me that nevertheless, they are there.
For the rest of my Austen in August Fan Challenge – see here