Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Exposing prejudice in Austen's Pride
If you were lucky (or unlucky) enough to have avoided a close study of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice during your school education, undoubtedly you would not have escaped viewing an adaptation of this popular classic on TV or at a cinema.
It's hard to account for its popularity in this age; universal themes may tie us to this period piece but its almost as if we are gripped by a nostalgia for this very unprogressive period of British history where class and gender completely determined someone's fate.
Such limits provide the friction in the fiction. Of course, Austen embedded her social discourse in an understated brand of British prose. Her commentary is so subtle - a snide remark made over a cup |of tea or a look that betrays disappointment.
The characters in this book occupy a coded world governed by conventions and a kind of language that like the layer of petticoats women wore in that era to conceal their bodies, keeps the truth buried beneath a fluff of civility. This is perhaps why the novel makes such a feast for English lit students; every banal exchange or incident requires rigorous decoding.
Not surprisingly, part of our assiduous dissection of this classic novel has also taken the form of revisionist postmodern literary products where authors' reworking of the novel results in a new narrative or is fused with another genre to produce something familiar, though novel.
Such was the case with PD James's Death comes to Pemberley (2011), where the British crime queen sets a whodunnit in the world Austen created in Pride and Prejudice. Other writers have pursued more unlikely genre mash-ups, such as Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009).
Jo Baker's Longbourn (Random Struik House) isn't in this vein; it is not a parody nor is Pride and Prejudice transplanted in genre literature; instead Baker creates a parallel narrative that maps the invisible worlds and characters that might have existed at the periphery of Austen's original.
In this way, she brings the unseen or unexplored territory at the edges into view. In the context of this 19th century class society, the invisible world and characters are the servants and their living conditions. The Bennets' home, therefore, remains the main setting, but instead of Elizabeth and her sisters functioning as the characters upon which the story pivots, Sarah and other servants, such as Mrs Hill, her husband and Polly become the focus.
This is not an upstairs/downstairs drama, in the mould of the uber popular TV series Downton Abbey for we are not fully privy to the world upstairs belonging to the Bennets, the Bingleys and such. We only learn of the events that take place in Austen's novel from a distance; in this way, the narrative focuses on the servant's perspective entirely, rendering Austen's characters as the ghostly "other". As such, Baker reverses the perspective on Austen's story so that she fleshes out Pride in Prejudice in interesting ways that overturn our conceptions of the original. More plainly put: she kills the romance of Pride and Prejudice, forcing us to question this fascination for British period pieces that focused on the landed gentry and the morality of this perspective when such gross exploitation supported this dominant social echelon.
Primarily, Baker sheds light on the overlooked minutiae of the period and the hard work behind the scenes that allowed the upper classes and their relatives to exist. The cleaning, cooking and tedious labour required to keep these large family homes running are the initial focus of the narrative. Baker has obviously relied on research into that period to impart an accurate picture, but it's a work of imagination too as she envisages the psychic cost to the servants, who because of their duties and activities or supporting roles are made to feel as if they are less important than their employers.
For example, when one of the Bennet daughters is prevented from walking into town to purchase ribbons for a dance because of the risk to her health, Sarah is sent instead and indeed catches a cold from making the trip in inclement weather. Her life and health are negligible in comparison to those she serves. Polly, the younger servant, is forced to adopt this name because she couldn't share the name Mary with one of the Bennet girls. At every turn, the servants' status as secondary citizens is affirmed, though in instances they are reminded how fortunate they are to have a place to live - both Sarah and Polly are orphans who have spent time in the poorhouse and the world outside Longbourn or other family homes is presented as being dangerous and difficult to survive in. Domestic service is therefore positioned as offering safety and security, making it that much harder for individuals trapped by it to escape it.
Nevertheless, some servants dream of another life - like Ptolemy, Bingley's African footman, who has ambitions of setting up a tobacco shop in London.
It is partly this ambition that ignites Sarah's interest in him; like the Bennet daughters who are looking to step up the social ladder and improve their status, so too is the young housemaid relying on a man to alter or secure her future prospects.
James Smith tests this resolve; she is attracted to this new handsome footman who joins the Bennet household despite the fact that he hints at a murky past that will prevent him from ever advancing.
In this way, Baker sets up a romance plot that echoes the one Elizabeth is caught up in Austen's novel - presented with a variety |of suitors Elizabeth too must be pragmatic while finding personal satisfaction.
This makes two fundamental points; first, while Sarah might be a second-class citizen in this society, she has the same needs and desires as those above her and is faced with the same inner conflicts.
Second, this parallel relationship and Sarah's responses gives perspective on the Bennets' materialism or their value-system.
Perhaps Sarah has nothing to lose, however, she eventually concludes that she is willing to give up what little security she has to pursue James and determine her fate.
For as long as she remains a servant, her life seems out of her hands; the shape of her days is |dictated by her employers' needs and she seems to even have little choice about her future - when Elizabeth moves to Pemberley after her marriage to Darcy, she has little say about whether she'd like to work or live there.
The light sewing work she is given in this new setting leaves her feeling as if she has outgrown her usefulness. Her desire to be independent and pursue a man who has nothing to offer her beside affection is in stark contrast to Elizabeth's mindset, but then Sarah is born from the imagination of a female writer of our times.
Baker casts most of Austen's characters in an unsavoury light.
At first, she highlights the less palatable features of their corporeality; the Bennet girls' hairy underarms, the monthly blood stains they leave on their unmentionables, the chamber pots full of faeces and urine that must be emptied.
These details are the intimate aspects that chambermaids like Sarah are privy too and they offer a sobering counterpoint to the public facades they parade in Austen's idealised novel.
More importantly, Baker exposes their imagined foibles, flaws or situations that far exceed the benign or amusing ones that Austen assigned them.
Mr Bennet's long-standing |relationship with Mrs Hill and the fate of the illegitimate child that is a product of it, is one such shocking revelation as is Baker's interpretation of Mr Wickham, whom she casts as a lecherous man with paedophilic tendencies.
Even Elizabeth comes off looking like a self-involved and callous person; she acts as if Sarah's desire to leave service is an offence to her, a selfish act.
Elizabeth never redeems herself or experiences a moment of clarity as is the case in Austen's novel. None of Austen's characters seem likeable but mostly this is due to their status as beneficiaries of the exploitation of Baker's characters, who are prevented from living full lives so that the landed gentry may live comfortably.
From this perspective, no matter how they conduct themselves in Baker's work, they cannot find redemption, for they seem to be trapped in the universe Austen created, where the gritty truths about the world have been neatly tucked under the surface, in a literal sense (the "downstairs" environment) but in a figurative one too.
Austen's novel is thus seen as one that facilitates such extreme ignorance that it is immoral, given the fact that it works at concealing the gross exploitation of the lower classes, who are denied basic human rights to a large degree - the servants aren't given a set wage, their masters determine what they will pay them once a year.
In every way, therefore, Baker tunnels under Austen's narrative, not only exposing the subterranean existence but the consequences of this skewed social system, which in so many ways brings the apartheid- era to mind.
This link is not accidental or simply the imposition of a South African reader; it is this selfsame system that laid the foundations |for apartheid - the British lower classes who established themselves in this country simply transplanted the ideology here, thus positioning themselves in a more favourable position.
Baker is a descendent of a line of servants, so she is personally invested in reclaiming a history that has not featured widely in popular culture. Via an interesting sub-plot connected to James, she also takes the reader beyond the borders of Britain, revealing the brutalities of the Napoleonic war.
This is the main strength of her tale, which revises not only history but questions the morality of our consumption of these British period pieces, which seem so attractive to us because they luxuriate in the fantasy of wealth and status.
Knowing the human cost to that existence gives such products a bitter edge and makes them appear so narrow in scope.
In this way, not only has Baker widened the lens through which we may read or reread Austen's work, but has made a bold contribution to the canon that has grown from the swell of that writer's influence on popular culture. - published February 9, 2014