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Sex & Low Beach
by Laura Diez de Baldeon
Being a servant in the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice must have sometimes felt like watching a modern-day soap opera. Just picture the help whispering among themselves while listening to the gossiping, wooing, and fighting going on upstairs.
In many stories, such as British television show Downton Abbey, the “downstairs,” or the world of the servants, becomes a window into the lives of the wealthy family “upstairs.” Of late, this “downstairs” view seems to be gaining popularity—not only with the rise of Downton Abbey, but in the literary world as well.
In Jo Baker’s new book, Longbourn, we see much more than just glimpses of the world downstairs: We see all of it. The British novel, set for release this fall, retells Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective. The stories of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are merely the background to the true narrative—that of the servants.
According to a press release from Knopf, Longbourn will reveal “the tragic consequences of the Napoleonic Wars and focus on a romance between a newly arrived footman and a housemaid, the novel’s main characters,” while simultaneously offering a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations for balls, the chaos in the servants’ quarters, and the housekeeper’s real thoughts about Mr. Bennet. Although the upstairs portion may be gone, the popularity of the story definitely isn’t. Baker’s novel was recently bought by the publishing houses Knopf, Transworld, and Random House, and it has also been signed for publication in eight other countries. Random House and Focus Features have even snatched up the book’s film rights.
Columbia creative writing professor Maggie Pouncey believes this interest in the downstairs world lies in its secretive, behind-the-scenes nature.
“I think part of the pleasure of seeing beneath the stairs in these upstairs/downstairs stories is that it’s a bit like being allowed backstage during a play, it offers a glimpse of how the glossy production is put together,” she says. “Those grand old houses were meant to run as if by magic—no one was supposed to see the maid light the fire, it was just to appear in the hearth, fully lit. Seeing downstairs is like seeing a hidden, secret world.”
The relative popularity of Baker’s novels attests to this fascination with the downstairs. Baker published four novels prior to Longbourn, but this is the only one that has achieved widespread popularity. While the other novels took place in similar time periods, many were stories of middle- to upper-class girls. That Longbourn, which spotlight working-class servants, was the only one to receive acclaim speaks to the current shift in interest from the unattainable life of the privileged few toward the more commonplace ups and downs of the working world.
So what’s the reason for the switch? A huge part of it, according to Barnard English professor Amanda Springs, may be the current economic downturn.
“I think the recent resurgence of this narrative framework can probably trace some of its roots to the recent international economic upheaval ... The recent attention on wealth disparity in many of the developed nations has some people, I think, thinking of their country, or even the world, as an upstairs/downstairs arrangement, and are figuring out that the vast majority of us are ‘downstairs,’” Springs says.
Pouncey agrees, citing the breakdown of the boundary between the public and private worlds.
“I’m sure there are many socioeconomic reasons for this trend appearing today,” she says. “But I wonder if it might also have something to do with our Facebook-ruled world, the way in which there are now so few boundaries left between public and private, between what is shared and what is hidden.”
And as Springs argues, even if “the escapism that the ‘upstairs’ portion of these narratives offers is alluring when people are faced with financial difficulties,” maybe it’s just becoming too separate from who most of us are.
Baker herself says, “As I read and reread Pride and Prejudice, I became aware that, had I been living at the time, I wouldn’t have got to go to the ball. I’d be stuck at home doing the sewing.” And that’s certainly where most of us would be.
Emma Rivera, a Barnard College first-year and both an avid watcher of Downton Abbey and a working student, agrees.
“To me, hearing the downstairs story is more relatable,” she says. “I work to earn my way through college, and it seems way more accessible to hear about people who also have to work, but can still have fun and move up in their jobs.”
In a world of Occupy protests and economic uncertainty—where the gap between the middle and upper class is growing ever wider—it can be more gratifying to hear about the success stories of “people like us.” Baker’s decision to mix the familiar fun of the Pride and Prejudice drama with something more relatable offers us the best of both worlds. We can operate primarily in the downstairs while remaining in earshot of the unattainable possibilities just out of sight.
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