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Longbourn and Wide Sargasso Sea

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

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.

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Best first lines…

The first lines of any novel are important; they suck you in, beguile you and help frame the rest of the book. Usually, a first line can help tell me if I am going to enjoy a book and the best ones stay stamped on my memory. At a pub quiz once, we had to identify four books from their first lines and I knew them all – for once I had earned my place in the team! There is a definite art to writing first lines which some writers excel in and others do not. I thought it would be interesting to go through my own book collection and draw out the examples I consider to be masterpieces. I’m sure there are others out there, but I have concentrated on books that I own. If there are good ones that I have missed, please let me know.

And so without further ado and in no particular order:

1. George Orwell, 1984

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

What a beginning! Orwell ignores the rule about not describing the weather beautifully and introduces us to a world which is strange in an ordinary way, through his simple prose and everyday descriptions. Where else could clocks strike thirteen except in the world of Big Brother and Room 101? I immediately took from this first line that language and words were going to be important in this story; by flicking an impossibility into a perfectly ordinary sentence, which is easily missed, warned me I needed to pay attention. 1984 rewards attention though and it remains one of the most haunting books in the English language in my opinion.

2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

What list of first lines would be complete without this? A perfectly elegant sentence which introduces money, love, truth and power. This first line is unforgettable and, although it is many years since I read Pride and Prejudice, I wrote that quote from memory (*scurries off to double-check it….yes, my memory was right!). I love the playfulness of this line, which encapsulates all the social satire and commentary in this novel in twenty-three words.

3. Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

This reminds me a little of the style of Orwell – it is simply written and a little odd! It quickly sets up an eccentric, largely domestic coming of age story where again, writing is important. As well as buckets of eccentricity, this line also betrays a little of the ironic detachment and elusiveness of I Capture the Castle through the picture of someone sitting in a sink, wholly inappropriate to write! Why on earth this is a good idea and what happens next are of course answered, but part of the magic of this book is you can never quite pin it down.

4. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .

I have a confession to make. Although I do own this book, I have not yet read it. However, I knew this first line off by heart anyway and I have no idea how, but perhaps that is why it is a masterpiece of first lines. The rhythm of this sentence is part of its power and it can only be appreciated when you read it out loud – go on, have a go! It also suggests to me balance and doubles, with light and darkness matches, despair and hope, wisdom and foolishness. I understand from trusty Spark notes that this is indeed one of the key themes in the book so again, the first line has encapsulated a key message. I’m now a bit embarrassed that I haven’t read this and used Spark notes so it is going on my ‘To read’ list immediately!

5. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina, another one of my favourites and another very memorable first line.  This cuts to the heart of this novel and may others; family and its influence on our happiness. In the age of the individual, we might not like the assertion that a happy family is not unique; Tolstoy seems to be suggesting that to be unique, we need to accept some unhappiness. This first line is remarkable simple despite its complex message and memorable for that. I don’t think I entirely agree as I think no family is perfectly happy all the time and so therefore each family is unique really, but the beauty of this line is that, as I have just proved, it really makes you think!

So there are five of my best first lines. I think they are all inspirational in their different ways. I was going to keep going as I’ve got several more, but it was getting a bit long, so if you like this post, I’ll do a part two!