I have just finished reading Longbourn by Jo Baker, a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants. I am always a bit hesitant about rewrites of classic tales, but Longbourn exceeded all my expectations; it was absolutely brilliant. The action of this novel takes place, in the main, in tandem with activity in Pride and Prejudice. The author, in her end-note, describes how Longbourn examines those ‘ghostly presences’ in the wings of Austen; Hill, Sarah and the other servants. They emerge as vivid human begins with cares, histories and secrets of their own that eclipse the oblivious Bennetts upstairs. Baker completely avoids pastiche of Austen and her narrative voice and style is completely her own, which I thought was a major achievement when tackling such a canonical work.
The subtle shift in perspective in Longbourn, which alters everything and changes the previously firm foundations of a story, reminded me of the other great retelling of a classic, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which revisits Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester. I don’t think there is a better retelling of a classic, ever. That is a bold statement, but I have not seen the power, complexity and insight of this retelling matched. It reminds us that there is always another side to a story, always. The mad woman in the attic becomes a human being and the eventual fate of the Jane Eyre characters horrifically inevitable because of their circumstances. Wide Sargasso Sea does of course differ from Longbourn in the extent that it chronicles the immediate past before Jane Eyre, but both have that touch of magic needed for a successful revision of a classic text.
Two great retellings and I’d highly recommend them both for giving an alternative perspective on well-worn tales.