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.)
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.