Jo Baker Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Jo Baker
Photo: Ed Marshall/Timeout/Camera Pre

Jo Baker

An interview with Jo Baker

Jo Baker discusses Longbourn and her hesitation about reimagining a classic.


Is it safe to assume you have long been a fan of Jane Austen and in particular of Pride and Prejudice?

That's pretty safe. In fact, I can't even remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice – it seems like I've always known it. Jane Austen's work was my first real experience of grown-up literature, and I've kept on returning to her work throughout my life; I just love her books – I'm a sucker for all that buttoned-up desire and wish-fulfillment. But also, as a writer, I admire her – the immaculate prose, the deft plotting, the briskness of the characterization. I didn't, though, for a moment consider trying to write like her. It's impossible to do nowadays without shifting into parody – which is something I really did not want.

When did you first get the idea to write Longbourn and was there a specific incident that sparked the idea? Can you talk a bit about how your family history in some ways inspired this book?

As a child, reading Jane Austen, I became aware that if I'd been living at the time, I wouldn't have got to go to the ball. I would've been stuck at home, with the housework.

We've got some battered old silver cutlery at home, which we inherited from my great aunt. She and her sisters had been in service, and she always said the silverware was a gift from her employer when she left—my grandmother maintained, however, that she'd nicked it. Just a couple of generations back, my family were servants.

And so once I was aware of that – of that English class thing – Pride and Prejudice began to read a little differently. I noticed other presences. A footman enters, a housemaid is told to run along and do something. I also began to realize that some things that seemed to just "happen" – notes arriving, carriages being brought round, meals being served – would of course require human agency to make them occur. I became fascinated by these little flickers of activity: I started to see a whole other life going on below the surface of the book.

But Longbourn really began to take shape when I got snagged on the line "the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy." It's the week before the ball, the weather is far too bad for the Bennet girls to venture forth, and so they send a servant out to get soaked on their behalf. And that made it really stark for me. A maid has to trudge out in the rain, and get soaked to the skin, just to get these frivolous little decorations for the other women's dancing shoes.

Then, reading Jane Austen's letters, I stumbled across a reference to two sisters whom she employed to do some sewing for her. Their surname was Baker. Okay, it's a common name, but still, the coincidence struck me! It seemed a confirmation of my instincts.

Any hesitation about reimagining a classic? How did you dream up your main characters?

I did hesitate. I hesitated for ages. I'd been thinking about this book for years before I first put pen to paper. That said, I don't really think of it as a "re-imagining". For me it's a "reading" of the classic. I just happen to "read" it a bit more intensively than might be usual, to include some elements that Austen didn't actually write.

I'll admit that Austen was peering over my shoulder while I was writing. Metaphorically speaking. But, again, when it came to characterization, I didn't want to write like her; I wanted to develop characters who could hold their own alongside hers, who would create space for themselves, who would be noticed in a crowded room. On a more personal level, I wanted to write characters who interested me, and kept surprising me. And they did.

The Bennets don't always come off as very sympathetic to their servants. Do you think there was a real divide in terms of those upstairs having any remote idea of the sheer amount of work being done downstairs?

There certainly was a sliding scale of familiarity between servants and their employers. In the poorer households, family members would work alongside their servants, and the relationship could be quite close – a servant would often be thought of as a family member. But the richer and more elite the household, and the more servants there were, the less personal contact there would be between the family and the staff. In the grander houses, lower servants were not expected to make eye contact; it's as if they're not really there – or not fully real, not considered persons in their own right. Everything would be managed through the senior staff. And yet the relationship there is also incredibly intimate, in terms of personal care, nakedness, and the body.

So the Bennets are somewhere in the middle of that scale. Not as aloof and distant as relations between staff and family might be in the grandest houses, like Pemberley, or even Netherfield, but not as informal as they might be between a grocer's family and their maid. Mrs. Bennet is, in her own way, very attached to Mrs. Hill, and entirely dependent on her. But she never once thinks of Mrs. Hill's wellbeing; the very idea would be ridiculous. She is there to perform a function. When it comes down to it, servants are the white goods of their day – the washing machines and dishwashers. One only really gives them any thought at all if they stop working.

I'm sure it was daunting but was it also fun to write this book, to bring to life in your own way all these delicious characters—the Bennets, Mr. Darcy, Wickham, Collins etc.—and have them mingle with your own?

It was. Both things. Daunting and fun. One thing that quickly became apparent as I was writing, was that I began to care a good deal about some of Austen's less prepossessing characters – the embarrassing mother, the gauche sister and the socially inept cousin. We aren't all blessed with confidence and wit and beauty – some of us find ourselves standing alone at the edge of the party, clutching a warm glass of white wine and trying to look like we're having fun – but that doesn't make our feelings and experiences any less valid.

Writing the book was also a chance to examine some of these characters from another angle – Wickham, for example. When you consider the age of the girls he preys upon, from a modern perspective, his behaviour seems more sinister than just fortune-hunting.

What kind of research did you do into what working class/domestic life was like at that time?

The domestic detail in Longbourn was gathered from a lot of sources: history books, contemporary domestic guides and recipes and practical research – like cleaning the floors with tea, which I still do. And some of it just comes out of my lived experience. In the village where I grew up there was an old Georgian vicarage, rather decrepit, that still had all its outbuildings – stables, stores, even a (disused, thankfully) "necessary house" with multiple wooden seats in a row; round the back, in the lower garden, there was a door that opened into the space underneath, so that it could be shoveled out. We used to play in the outhouses and grounds as children – it's all been redeveloped now, but this became Longbourn, when I was writing the book.

I was keen, too, to show that there was more heterogeneity below stairs than we might otherwise realize. Austen herself, living in rural Hertfordshire, mentions in a letter the black servant of a neighboring household; these servants were often freed slaves, brought over from the family's estates in the Caribbean.

This seemed to fit with the Bingleys in Pride and Prejudice, who had been in "Trade" in the north of England. The Triangular Trade – in slaves, and sugar – was the foundation of much of the wealth of the period, and there were centres in several northern ports, particularly Liverpool and my hometown of Lancaster. So that's where that aspect of the book came from.

One of the most striking parts of Longbourn takes place during the Napoleonic war. It's a chilling description of the wartime experience. Why did you choose to tell this part of the story?

There's a throwaway line of Lydia's, when she's filling her sisters in on gossip that they'd missed while Jane was ill at Netherfield: "a private had been flogged." To the family it's not a subject for polite conversation, but I found myself stuck on this line, thinking about what it really meant, about the reality of soldiering in this period. I found myself thinking about not the dashing Militia officers in their scarlet coats, but the ordinary foot-soldiers who came back from the front lines damaged, scarred.

What do you think Jane Austen would make of Longbourn?

I dread to think.

And I'd be terrified to meet her (if such a thing were possible). Aside from the outrage I've committed in writing Longbourn, I have such a massive crush on her, as a writer, that I'd be completely incapacitated by it. I'd be shambolic, stammering and self-conscious, and if she deigned to say anything to me at all, I wouldn't be able to put two words together in reply.

But then I also identify with her. The Letters – which are of course incomplete – really do give an insight into the woman, as well as the writer, and the work. She can be sniffy and irritable, as well as loving and loyal and brilliantly generous – there's a wonderful sequence where she writes warm and supportive letters to her niece, advising her about a novel she has written. But then, when you read on, you come upon another letter to someone else, in which she gripes about the unrealistic niece, the messy book, and the bother of it all. To get these real, honest glimpses of her is brilliant.

So what is next for you? Any other classics you are thinking of taking on?

Moby Dick from the whale's point of view.

Not really.

But I have started work on the next book. I'm really excited about it. It's different from Longbourn in many ways, but there are similar themes – war, exodus, love; finding a place for yourself in an uncaring world.

I've completely fallen for my central characters again.

Jo Baker discusses The Undertow and describes how a piece of family history became the catalyst for her story.


You drew inspiration from your own family story when writing The Undertow. When did you first learn of this family history and what made you decide to turn it into a novel?

I don't think I would ever have come to write the book at all if it wasn't for a piece of family history I stumbled on through a chance encounter in Valetta, Malta, where I was on a writers' residency some years ago. At the time, I was working on my previous book, The Telling.

I used to go to the Barrakka Gardens - a beautiful place on the harbor walls. On one occasion an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me. A mine of local information, he was soon pointing out buildings of historical interest, including an old hospital where, he told me, the wounded from Gallipoli had been treated. My great grandfather had served, and died, at Gallipoli - that was all I knew about him. I told the old fellow about this, saying that of course, having died there, my great-grandfather wouldn't have actually been in Malta. But, he told me, the ships refueled and took on supplies there on their way out. I realized that I was standing where my great grandfather may well have stood, ninety years previously, in radically different circumstances. The sense of connectedness, of time, gave me goose bumps.

When I returned home, I started researching my great-grandfather. There was not much known and there were no photographs, but the more I found out, the more fascinated I became, and the more aware of the starkness of his existence. He had grown up in a slum. No wonder he went to sea at fourteen. When he passed through Malta in 1915, he was on his way to die a very nasty, working-class death, trapped in the boiler room of his ship. I also came upon his post-card collection (which appears in the book), which revealed to me something of him as a person. The postcards, selected by him, preserved by his widow and then his son, showed him to be so alive to the world. He didn't just go for the tourist shots - he had, for example, amassed a large collection of pictures of the excavations of Pompeii. He had an artist's or a writer's alertness to the world, I felt, though he never had the slightest chance of realizing that. I, on the other hand, had had the privilege of an Oxbridge education, and had been brought to Malta simply to write. What lay between us, and between the astonishing differences in our life-chances, was simply ninety years. I had to explore that.

The Undertow follows one family through multiple generations, which you describe as a sort of narrative relay, with each character passing the baton to the next. Which time period was your favorite to write about?

Each period had its own pleasures and challenges, but I particularly loved writing the sections set in Battersea in the early part of the century, partly because the streets I'm writing about have disappeared - not just the houses, but the actual layout of the city there, the street-scape. Being close to the docks, the streets were flattened in the Blitz, and then built over after the war. It's a particular pleasure to reconstruct something that no longer exists - out of old maps, daydreams, and from stomping round the remaining neighborhoods in Battersea.

I also loved writing the Malta sections - both the present day and the World War I section. I enjoyed working out the continuities and differences over time. And, when so much of the novel is set in England, it was wonderful to let rip on Mediterranean color and sunshine!

Did you especially identify with any one character? Or were they all connected for you?

I identify with them all; they are all, in different ways, fractured and flawed, but still struggling with what life throws at them. Which is, I think, something everyone can relate to. But I do feel most sympathetic towards Billy, who has the least ability of any of the characters to articulate his emotions.

There are a few links that run throughout all of the narratives - objects that are passed down, the name "William" which each generation shares in some way - and one of them is a sinister figure who comes into the family's life after WWI. Did you always plan to have a "villain" in the story, or did he develop as you went along?

Sully was always there in the Gallipoli section of the story, taunting William, and I always planned for him to return... then he just kept cropping up as I wrote through the later sections. Like a bad penny, as William describes him. I realize now that he represents the dark side of inheritance, the things you don't want to know about your family. For Will, in particular, he is an unwelcome reminder of where he comes from and everything he's trying to leave behind.


This novel was originally published in the UK as The Picture Book. What, for you, is the significance of the US title, The Undertow?

The U.S. title captures - rather nicely I think - one of the novel's main themes: the pull of history. History drags characters under, or side-swipes them out of the course they had foreseen for their lives. At times the undertow is literal - drowning, near drowning, fear of drowning - and at times it is more metaphorical - distractions and diversions, failures, unexpected changes in circumstances.

Each generation of the family experiences war in a different way, but either personal experience or the memory of war is an important part of their lives. Was this a theme you set out to explore, or was it just a product of following a family through the 20th century?

As I was writing the novel, I thought of it as a story of family and war, and a family at war. Even not experiencing war is an issue in the book - Will is seen somehow to be deficient in not having served. I also wanted to think about individuals' experience of the current war - the global War on Terror - in relation to that of the earlier World Wars.

Did you have any particular literary inspirations while writing The Undertow?

Like most writers I read voraciously and promiscuously, and so it's almost impossible to know exactly what leaks through and influences my work, and what just left me impressed and satisfied as a reader. As part of my research I made a point of reading the novels of the period, not just the history - for texture and detail. Of course, because this book ranges over the 20th Century, there were a lot of novels to choose from; but I think readers could notice references (or reactions) to the work of E M Forster, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and Kingsley Amis, amongst many others.

I don't know if it was exactly an influence, but I was also going through a full-on literary crush on Cormac McCarthy at the time of writing. His sentences are so lean, so active, and he has this extraordinary ability to convey so much about the emotional state of emotionally-inarticulate people.

What is your writing routine? Do you write at a particular time of day or in a particular place?

The Undertow was written mostly at night. I was juggling a full-time job and two small children so sleep was the only thing I could cut back on. I'd wake at 3 am, go downstairs, and work till 7 am when the kids woke up (known in our house as 'The Sylvia Plath shift'). If it wasn't for insomnia I would never have been able to complete the novel at all.

Obviously, that kind of schedule isn't good in the long term; I was able to quit my day job when I sold the book, and can now work at more reasonable times. I write in a coffee-shop in town; first draft is always with a notepad and fountain pen, then redraft onto computer.

Turning to popular culture for a moment, have you watched the TV series Downton Abbey and do you think that fans of the series will find some similarities in the first sections of The Undertow?

I think readers will find similarities, but very much from a below-stairs point of view. I'm fascinated by the period Downton Abbey explores - a time of massive historical events and the social change that comes with them. The book's focus though, is on the working class experience. They don't have succession to worry about, so much as survival. They start the century with nothing: they have only their lives and their wits to call their own. I think the stakes are higher for them as a result.

What project are you working on now?

I'm very excited about my next book; I don't want to jinx anything, though, so I'm keeping quite quiet about it...

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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