Monday, November 4, 2013

deep structure

"[...] Longbourn is delightfully audacious; after all, Jane Austen is a very tough act to follow. Pride and Prejudice has been read and reread by enchanted readers since its publication in 1813. George Henry Lewes, the Victorian critic and partner of George Eliot, declared Austen to be 'the greatest artist that has ever written,' and Virginia Woolf called her 'the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal.'
     Today these judgments have reached something close to cultish fervour. Yet Austen’s great successor, Charlotte Brontë, was baffled by all this admiration. For her, Austen’s work lacked 'what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and sentient target of death.' It’s one of literary history’s most famous misjudgments.
   But if Charlotte Brontë had taken up the challenge of a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, she might very well have hit upon the sort of broader, more sympathetic point of view Jo Baker has derived from the servants’ quarters. Baker shares some of Brontë’s qualities — a power of description, a feeling for the natural world, a regard for emotional turbulence — and she shows a comfort with the past that allows her to imagine it in a vivid way. […]
     With large imaginative sympathy and a detailed knowledge of early-19th-century housekeeping, Baker gives us a sobering look at the underside — or the practical side — of daily life circa 1812, where in a bourgeois household, however hard up, a staff of people, knowing their place, worked an 18-hour day, every day, to achieve for their employers even the minimum of comfort. In Baker’s account, the Bennets are employers more considerate than many — Elizabeth gives the housemaid, Sarah, one of her dresses — but social distances are thoughtlessly taken for granted. Certain lines are never crossed, and certain others often are: an upper-class young man was never too grand to hang around downstairs in hopes of ruining some servant girl."
— Diane Johnson, The New York Times

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