I've just reached the grief-bringing, rage-inducing end of volume two of "Longbourn"
This book is so much more powerful than I had expected it to be. At first I was fascinated at how well it immersed me in the daily life of a house in the English countryside in the early nineteenth century.
Then, I was interested in the different lights cast on the characters from "Pride And Prejudice" and how the below-stairs story not only followed its timeline but echoed its issues and choices.
But soon, I became deeply engaged in the relationship between Sarah, the housemaid and James, the newly engaged groom/footman with scars on his back.
The storytelling is strong and subtle, packed not with action but a deep understanding of the flow of everyday life and the ways in which we swim through it.
Wickham remains, for Sarah and James as much as for the Bennets and the Darcys, a source of pain and shame and unrepentant malevolence. He comes alive in this portrayal. He's not a monster. He's just someone who hates himself and everyone around him and vents that hate in small acts or malice hidden beneath a veneer of charm that is an expression of his contempt.
As I finish Part Two, with damage done and pain still to come, I'm surprised to find that, while I feel for Sarah and James, some of my rage comes simply from how the society they live in works. At one point Wickham says to James. "You can't do that to me. There are rules". And there were. Brutal rules that allowed flogging, birching and hanging. Rules that kept discipline in the Army that, in turn, kept the working people in their place. I knew this already but Jo Baker made me feel it.
So, given that this is fiction and that the action takes place two hundred years ago, why the rage? I think it's because I see us heading back there. I see the people who ruled my country for their own benefit for generations until we took power from them after World War Two, waking up to the idea that they could do it again. That they could live wealthy lives and use force to protect their privilege and we would just accept that there need to be rules and that honest people have nothing to fear from them.
This isn't where I expected a revisiting of Jane Austen to take my imagination and emotions but I suspect it was always part of Jo Baker's intent.