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 leftmy 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 charactersthe 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.
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.
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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