In her second novel to be published in the U.S., British author Jo Baker takes on one of literature’s most hallowed works: Pride and Prejudice. Reaching beneath the surface glamour of ball gowns and verdant estates, Longbourn exposes the hard, manual labor required to keep Elizabeth Bennet’s repeatedly muddied petticoats a pristine white. Though the Pride and Prejudice hook might be what attracts readers, Longbourn proves to be a fascinating novel in its own right. We asked Baker a few questions about the new book.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’m a massive fan of Jane Austen, and have re-read her novels countless times.
I’d also always known that members of my family had been in service, and this perhaps made me more alert to the servants’ presence in Pride and Prejudice than I otherwise would have been. The catalyst, though, was one particular line in Austen’s novel: “The very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” I just couldn’t stop thinking about the reality of what it meant. I wondered who “proxy” was, and how s/he felt about having to go and fetch decorations for someone else’s dancing shoes, in the pouring rain, when none of the Bennet girls are prepared themselves to go. And that’s what started to make the story fizz.
"I’d say it’s in conversation with the earlier novel—or perhaps a “reading” of it."
How would you describe Longbourn’s relationship to Pride and Prejudice? Would you say it is a corrective, like Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone or Jean Rhys' The Wide Sargasso Sea?
I wouldn’t say corrective—I don’t think there’s anything in Austen’s novels to correct. I’d say it’s in conversation with the earlier novel—or perhaps a “reading” of it.
This novel covers topics that Austen is often criticized for ignoring: the serving class, the Napoleonic Wars, race relations. Why do you feel that Austen didn't cover these topics in her work?
Although I’m reluctant to speculate. . . .
Austen wrote honestly and truthfully—which is part of her enduring appeal—and it’s impossible to write honestly and truthfully about material that doesn’t have immediacy for you.
It’s not as simplistic as “write what you know”; I realized recently that every book I’ve written, I’ve always thought, this is the one book that I was born to write. Every single time. And then I go on and write the next one, about something else entirely, but there is nonetheless the same kind of personal, intimate connectedness to it, and that’s what makes the writing truthful.
I do also feel it’s a bit pointless to criticize Austen for not writing what she didn’t write. The novels wouldn’t be better for being different. Although there are a few exceptions, I do think that kind of grand social-conscience novel evolved a little later—with the expansive narratives of writers like Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo, and George Elliot.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth famously observes, "what praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant?" You use the treatment of the servants as a similar mark of character in Longbourn, yet even the most sympathetic of Austen's original characters don't give much consideration at all to the servants. (I started to wonder how low a bar Mrs. Reynolds had for Darcy.) Do you think that any of the servants at Longbourn would praise any of the Bennets?
There’s a danger of spoilers if I explore this question too fully! I’ll tread carefully.
None of the relationships between upstairs and down are uncomplicated, or are left untouched by the events of the novel. Someone who might have been unquestioningly loyal at the start of the book, might, by the end, feel rather differently . . . so they might praise their employers at one point in the book, but not at another . . if that makes sense.
I do find that notion of “the best master” really problematic. Even the best master is still a master—and therefore in a position of privilege and power over others—whether or not he chooses to abuse that power and privilege. Mrs Reynolds’ sentiment about Darcy has always made me feel really queasy.
"I think Elizabeth probably had the best talent for friendship—but Lydia would be best for staggering home at 3 a.m. with. I do have a sneaking sympathy for Mary."
Money is a concern that is at the heart of much of Austen's work and it's also central in Longbourn. What do you think money represents to your characters?
I’m very aware that these were turbulent times; there’d been crop failures, an ongoing war that strangled trade, changes in industry and agriculture that were radically altering people’s way of life. In the north, the Luddites were breaking the new machinery that was making them redundant—and their actions were put down violently by the Militia. Most people had no political representation at all.
So I know, times being what they were, that money and security would be issues for everyone below stairs. I imagine, for example, that Sarah thinks the Bennet girls don’t know how lucky they are, with their thousand pounds in the four percents. But the gulf between classes is so wide, that she doesn’t even really think to feel jealous of them.
Having said all that, Sarah isn’t really that bothered about money itself—she’s more hungry for experience than financial gain—and she knows that she can, when there is work to be had, work for a living. An option which funnily enough offers her one kind of freedom that the Bennet girls don’t have.
This isn't your first foray into historical fiction—but what sort of research did you do into this period? Was it easy/possible to find many firsthand accounts from those "in service" at the time?
There’s already quite a lot of excellent history being done about servants and domestic life in England in this period. Both Carolyn Steedman and Amanda Vickery have written brilliantly on domestic life the period, and Ben Wilson’s book on popular culture at the time was invaluable. So I read a good deal, but I also did some practical research—employing some of the cleaning methods used at the time around my own home.
Some of the research was done a long time before the novel was even thought of, though: I was lucky enough to grow up in a village where was a Georgian vicarage, rather dilapidated and not re-developed at the time. It had a big echo-y kitchen and all the outbuildings—including a necessary house and disused stables. My best friend was the vicar’s daughter, and we’d play out there all the time—so I grew up knowing the geography and feel of that kind of house very well.
Did writing the book make you feel differently about any of the original Pride and Prejudice characters?
I think it allowed me to explore some sympathies. I’ve always felt for Mrs Bennet, for example. And I found myself understanding her a little better, after imagining her life up until the events of Pride and Prejudice. Five daughters—all those pregnancies. I don’t envy her that.
What do you think Austen would make of her continued fame today?
I think she’d be pleased. In life, she was interested to know how her books were getting on, and keen to hear positive reactions to them. What she’d make of being on the bank note, I don’t know—particularly as it’s not an unproblematic image of her.
Who is your favorite Bennet sister?
Depends on context. I think Elizabeth probably had the best talent for friendship—but Lydia would be best for staggering home at 3 a.m. with. I do have a sneaking sympathy for Mary. She doesn’t always say the right thing, she is awkward and overlooked, and I really can empathize with that.
Why did you call the book 'Longbourn'?
Longbourn House itself is so important to the book—a good deal of the action happens in and around the place. But the word itself also contains ideas of stoicism and endurance—something carried for a long time. And this is key to both the story and to the servants’ experience. They have to just keep on keeping on, carrying their burdens, getting on with things, day after day, however they feel about it.
What are you working on next?
A new book—but I’m feeling quite quiet about it, sorry.