Jane Austen barely mentions servants, although we know they're there. Jo Baker took the few mentions of servants in Pride and Prejudice and some historical research to create her downstairs family: housekeeper/cook (and Mrs. Bennett's confidant-by-circumstance) Mrs. Hill. her aged husband who acts as butler and occasional valet to Mr. Bennet, two maids (20ish Sarah and pre-teen Polly), and the new footman, James. Longbourn meanders through several intertwined plot lines, focusing Sarah's choice between James and by Mr. Bingley's servant and former slave (and probable half-brother) Ptolemy Bingley. Mrs. Hill, thinking of Sarah's future and her own history, gently nudges the younger woman in one direction, then the other, concerned more with Sarah's security than her heart. In the end, though, it's Sarah's decision and that choice (like most of the novel) I easily predicted.
There are no surprises in Longbourn, but it's engaging and the well-drawn characters are sympathetic. Parts of the epilogue may be a little bit far-fetched, but downstairs life rings true. The Bennetts are on the edge of respectability, socially unable to do their own work but not rich enough to afford the staff required to fully support their lifestyle. Even the more benevolent family members (Lizzy and Jane) are dismissive of the servants whose value comes from what they do rather than who they are, and Mr. Wickham appears more predatory towards young girls than Jane Austen ever imagined. Mrs. Hill, more aware of the precariousness of a servant's life, worries about how the Bennett girls' marriages (and Mr. Collins's eventual inheritance of Longbourn) will break up the household and gently manipulates others where she can. While not as good as Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn works as a companion volume.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Peter Lovesy followed up my favorite (so far) Sergeant Cribb mystery with what I think is the weakest. Invitation to a Dynamite Party starts with Cribb receiving an introduction to bomb making and Irish Nationalism. The suspected bombers have murdered one policeman, and a second - Cribb's faithful but not too bright Constable Thackery - seems to have become a mole. After some intensive instruction in explosives, Cribb manages to ingratiate himself with the criminal crew and prevent (rather than solve) a high profile murder. It's an adequate mystery, but it just didn't grab my attention. Read it if you're reading the series and don't like missing an installment, but don't go looking for Invitation to a Dynamite Party.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
The next installment in my Peter Malye casual re-read, Acquired Tastes is a collection of essays Mayle wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He covers, well, acquired tastes - expensive yet visible items most of us would partake of if only we could afford it (or have an expense account allowing us to explore them). Truffles, custom-fit clothing, cashmere, champagne, and limousines get their day along with the less pleasant expenses of house guests, lawyers, and tipping. It's a bit more "guy" oriented than I remember it (I can assure you that I covet cashmere sweaters as much as any man - or more so, since I don't have a shirt coming between the exquisite softness and my arms and torso), and the numbers are a bit off thanks to the inflation of twenty-five years. Like most of Mayle's work, it's aspirational, leaving the reader wanting a custom-made suit, hand-made shoes, and a five-star dinner date as an excuse to wear them.
I've got a bit of a gap in my knowledge of European history. Once you pass the Renaissance, I'm a bit hazy on the mainland. I haven't thought about Napoleon III since I took European History in high school. That made it hard to enjoy The Judgment of Paris. I thought it would narrate the artistic revolution that brought us Delacroix, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cassat, and others. While Ross King addressed the artistic trends at the time, he mixed professional politics with real politics, and with the European wars that flared in the middle of the 19th Century. So I'm torn - it's a well written book covering a fascinating topic, but not a topic about which I particularly care. I'd much rather read the book I thought it would be.