Re-imagining the World of Elizabeth Bennet: Jo Baker’s Historical Novel LONGBOURN

Posted by October 3rd, 2013

One of the books I’ve been most looking forward to reading this fall is Jo Baker’s LONGBOURN, coming out on October 8th from Alfred A. Knopf. LONGBOURN is a historical re-imagining of Elizabeth Bennet’s family (from Jane Austen’s revered novel PRIDE AND PREJUDICE), as seen from the point of view of the Bennets’ servants. I rabidly consume any and all Austen adaptations, and if I am a sucker for any trend in pop culture, it is the whole “upstairs-downstairs” dynamic of BBC/PBS shows like Downtown Abbey and (you guessed it!) Upstairs Downstairs. (Recent fiction has capitalized gorgeously on these themes, with excellent novels like MAISIE DOBBS, FEVER, and THE HELP.) Longbourn cover

I wrote to the Knopf publicity department to find out more about this book and Jo Baker’s inspiration behind it. Here’s an excerpt from the Q&A the Knopf team prepared for their media outreach for LONGBOURN. I wanted to highlight this book and author for Book Country members eager to delve into the past as inspiration for their fiction–Baker’s willingness to engage with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’s implicit class divide was, to me, quite courageous and refreshing. Read on to see how these themes informed her work.

Knopf Publicity: Was there a specific incident that inspired you to write this book?

JB: 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.

KP: Any hesitation about re-imagining a classic? How did you dream up your main characters?

JB: 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.

KP: 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?

JB: 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 behavior seems more sinister than just fortune-hunting.

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

JB: 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 centers in several northern ports, particularly Liverpool and my hometown of Lancaster. So that’s where that aspect of the book came from.

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

JB: 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 to LONGBOURN in many ways, but there are similar themes – war, exodus, love; finding a place for yourself in an uncaring world. And I’ve completely fallen for my central characters again.

Jo Baker author photoJo Baker was born in Lancashire, UK, and was educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is also the author of the books The Undertow, Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster. International rights to publish LONGBOURN have been snapped up around the world, as have film adaptation rights. We can’t wait to see the downstairs of Longbourn on screen! Find out more about Jo Baker on her website.

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