I do enjoy a good homage novel but it’s not everyone that can write them and when it comes to Jane Austen, the crop is abundant but not necessarily grade A  …. On a scale of A to E, previous reads include Lynn Shepherd’s Murder in Mansfield Park (A) and P D James’s Death comes to Pemberley (E).  How will the most recent batch stack up?

Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013) is easily the most original.  Like Shepherd, she has played with the template. She has taken us to the servant’s quarters, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the lady’s maid, Sarah.  Except that Sarah is also washer woman, cleaning woman, yard-sweep and a few other things besides, the consequences of which play havoc with her poor hands.  Life in the servants’ quarters is illuminating, full of household maintenance tips from the past.  As a tea-drinker, I was fascinated by the usefulness of old tea-leaves.

As fans of Pride and Prejudice know, the Bennetts were not rich but their life described from Sarah’s point-of-view is certainly comfortable, enviable, if somewhat empty.  The tea-parties and balls hardly glamorous for the servants, rather occasions for hard graft, additional chores to be fitted into an already full schedule, complete with waiting-up duties which reduced the already paltry hours available for sleep. 

Life at the beck and call of the Bennetts is not easy but not without room for adventure.  Sarah may be kept busy but there’s still time for romance – in fact, she attracts the attention of Bingley’s exotic ex-slave man-servant and a mysterious stranger, who arrives, as if from nowhere, to take up service in the Bennett’s household.  

By creating a novel focused on details which Austen mentioned in the passing, if at all, (the Napoleonic wars, money making in the colonies), Longbourn has a broader view of life in Regency England than Austen’s novel of the chattering classes.  The downside for me, however, was the tendency to excess and I’m asking myself was it necessary for Wickham to be so wicked, or for Mr Bennett to be so imperfect?  Even Jane and Elizabeth become slightly imperious following their marriages.  I will accept all that but the subplot involving the housekeeper’s husband, specifically his death, went too far. I’m willing to change my mind if someone can show where Austen hinted as such things …..

The Borough Press have commissioned the retelling of Austen’s six major novels in contemporary settings. The series launched in October 2013 with Joanna Trollope’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  Now how can I say this kindly?  This is the weakest of the three novels under discussion today (though not as bad as Death at Pemberley).  Knowing the remit that Borough Press has given to the authors –  must keep the characters, must keep the narratie arc – I reckon that Trollope had her pen nib capped before she started.   I mean in our welfare state, would a widow with three daughters be so entirely reliant upon the beneficence of her male relations?  For that reason, this story never felt entirely feasible and the modern technology – the headphones, the mobile phones, etc – felt like a veneer.  In its defence though, Trollope makes the most of personality differences between Eleanor and Marianne and the girls behave as contempories would.  So Marianne’s passion for Willoughby is not just emotional, it is physical.  Neither is Eleanor simply an emotional crutch for her family – she becomes a working girl, lending economic support as well.  But the greatest pleasure in this retelling is Margaret who transforms from a background figure in Austen to a typical 21st century, precocious, know-it-all, interfere-in-it-all teenager.  I wouldn’t want her at my kitchen table, but I enjoyed the cheek and insolence in this audio book.

And so to the cream of the crop.  I’ve had a soft spot for Northanger Abbey since it was my O-level text.  I’ve reread it a few time since, though never the Mysteries of Udolpho, the gothic novel which it satirises.  (Later this year for definite …) So I was looking forward to McDermid’s satire on a satire.  She’s gone one better, having chosen to satirise that contemporary phenomenon, the vampire novel.  Not only that, she has moved the novel north from Bath and its season of balls to Edinburgh and its season of plays, concerts and books.  There’s no greater social occasion than the Edinburgh Festival and for bookish Catherine, Charlotte Square and the book festival is full of adventure.  Bella Thorpe is deliciously dreadful and her brother John an insufferable bore.  Speaking recently at Glasgow’s Aye Write McDermid said that she had been given strict instructions not to kill anyone off, but you can tell that her pen must have been feeling murderous when she wrote his scenes!  Love me, love my car could be John Thorpe’s motto, a modern riff on the love me, love my carriage of Austen’s original.

Northanger Abbey is the Tilney’s ancestral home in the Scottish borders and Colonel Tilney a bullying old man.  Ellie is as sweet and charming as ever though Henry is not as foppish as I remember his original.  (Or am I mixing him up with Edward Ferrars?) Actually he is quite an appealing well-read young fellow.  Yes, I can see what Catherine sees in him.  Although, of course, her overactive imagination which goes into overdrive apropos the death of the colonel’s wife almost ruins everything.  But it’s not her vampiric fantasies that cause her abrupt banishment but a malicious rumour – a twist as sudden as it is modern, for indeed, nothing else would estrange the right-wing colonel so effectively.  It’s along the same lines as one of the plot updates in Longbourn but McDermid isn’t salacious with it and so does not offend Austen’s spirit.

I listened to the unabridged audio, narrated by Jane Collingwood and I loved it from the first sentence.  So much so, that I bought myself the book.  Reading that sentence now it would be so easy to immerse myself into Catherine’s adventures once more.

It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely ressemble her books.

In McDermid’s retelling it does and there’s no disappointment to be had at all.

Longbourn (B)35_stars.GIF / Sense and Sensibility (C) 3stars.GIF / Northanger Abbey (A)4_stars.GIF

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