Baker, Jo. Longbourn. Knopf. Oct. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780385351232. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385351249. F
Avid Jane Austen readers know Longbourn as the family home of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, where five unmarried daughters in search of husbands with fortunes and their put-upon parents reside. This, however, is not their story. The novel takes place beneath the staircase, where the servants prepare the meals, wait tables, scrub mud off boots and petticoats, drive the carriages, and otherwise cater to the daily demands of the household. While the drama of husband-hunting takes place largely offstage and the family goes about its familiar social engagements with the Bingleys, the Darcys, the insufferable Mr. Collins, and the mendacious Wickham, the real drama unfolds when the enigmatic James Smith arrives as a footman and catches the eye of Sarah, the young housemaid with dreams of a world beyond Longbourn. VERDICT British author Baker’s second novel after her much lauded The Undertow is densely plotted and achingly romantic. This exquisitely reimagined Pride and Prejudice will appeal to Austen devotees and to anyone who finds the goings-on below the stairs to be at least as compelling as the ones above. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/8/13.]
Trollope, Joanna. Sense & Sensibility. Harper. Nov. 2013. 384p. ISBN 9780062200464. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062200488. F
Right now reboots are all the rage, what with Shakespeare in California kitchens (Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing) and Superman sans his red trunks (Man of Steel). Now it’s Jane Austen’s turn. In the first in a projected series in which Austen’s novels will be updated by contemporary authors, Trollope is a good (and bankable) choice to lead off. With almost 20 novels to her credit, she certainly outdistances our Jane, at least in terms of quantity, and her satires on British society have invited comparison with Austen in the past. Trollope’s take on Austen’s Sense and Sensibility hews closely to the original plot, with some characters, e.g., youngest sister Margaret, blossoming in the retelling. While some equivalents (the gift of a horse becomes the gift of a motor car) seem almost too pat, the satire directed at these Thames Valley girls (at one point Elinor huffily defriends Edward Ferrars) and their elders largely hits the sweet spot. VERDICT This will more than satisfy Trollope fans as well as most Austen devotees; with its sprightly mix of the old and new told in streamlined prose (most of the paragraphs might be tweeted), this twice-told tale highlights the issue of what has changed in 200 years, and what has remained constant.