Today we are pleased to welcome Longbourn author Jo Baker. We asked her about her novel, Jane Austen, and writing. Don’t forget to enter for a chance to win a copy of Longbourn courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher. Twelve (12) lucky US winners will be chosen!
What drew you to shift the perspective of PRIDE & PREJUDICE from the main characters fans have come to know to the servants within the Bennet household?
I’m a lifelong fan of Austen’s work, and I’ve re-read Pride and Prejudice more times than I can remember. I admire her enormously as a writer, as well as just massively enjoying the books as a reader. But it’s never been a straightforward relationship for me. I’ve always known that if I’d lived in Austen’s day, I wouldn’t have got to go to the ball. My family were in service not so long ago – my grandma and her sisters all worked as maids (my other grandmother was a mill-hand). Knowing that, it perhaps made me more aware than I otherwise would have been of the servants’ presence in the book. The errands that are run, the meals served – it’s rather prosaic, perhaps, but I found myself wondering, who washed Elizabeth’s petticoats when she got them inches deep in mud?
Jane Austen wrote within her own time, and about a sphere of life in which she was familiar. What was it like to look back and research for LONGBOURN? What challenges did you have to contend with to bring the readers to understand life from the perspective of the household staff?
I really enjoyed the research – I’ve written ‘historicals’ before, and finding that kind of telling detail has always been a particular joy for me. There’s some really good work already done on servants’ experience and the domestic world in this period (historians like Amanda Vickery an d Carolyn Steedman) and that was just a delight to read. I also enjoyed reading contemporary domestic guides and recipes as well as doing some practical research – like cleaning the floors with tea, which I still do. Some of the details in Longbourn come from my own lived experience. Trying to imagine the house – which I conceived of as being rather like the vicarage in Steventon where Austen grew up – a gentleman’s residence, genteel but not fashionable or grand – I found myself mining my own memory. 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. We used to play in the outhouses and grounds as children – it’s all been redeveloped now, but I drew on the memories of the place when imagining the household of Longbourn.
I was keen, though, 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 neighbouring 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. ‘Trade’ at this time in the ‘North’ is likely to be The Triangular Trade – in slaves, and sugar. Slavery and sugar were the foundations of much of the wealth of the period in England, and there were centres of the trade in several northern ports, particularly Liverpool and my hometown of Lancaster. So that’s where that aspect of the book came from.
The reality was much messier and dirtier than we might like to imagine, and the reality is also that we are much more likely to be descended from people like Sarah, with her chilblains and her blisters, than people like Elizabeth. Statistically, there were far fewer gentlemen’s daughters than there were ordinary working girls like Sarah. Once that occurs to you, I think the point of view seems quite natural and sympathetic – it certainly does to me, given where I come from. The main challenge, really, was to keep it closely knitted to the story in Pride and Prejudice, so that when a meal is served in Austen’s novel, we’ve seen it prepared in mine, and when a note arrives in Pride and Prejudice, someone has to trudge across the muddy fields in Longbourn.
Which of Austen’s original characters did you enjoy looking at most from the servants’ perspective? Do you think this added more depth to their character or help the reader to have a better sense of the perspective of the servants?
I felt a real sympathy, once I started writing about her, for Mrs Bennet. Once it occurred to me that she had, of course, been through (at least) five pregnancies and childbirths, without the benefit of modern medicine, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, rather than irritated with her. How exhausting, wearing and damaging that must be to her health and wellbeing. And, I think, she has just enough intelligence to know how Mr Bennet feels about her. I think Mrs Hill’s relationship with her mistress is also key – her loyalty and sympathy, but her keen understanding of her failings.
Do you think there are stories that could be told from this perspective within other households in the Austen world? Which might be another you would like to bring to life?
I have no plans to! Longbourn was something I needed to write – I needed to explore my relationship with Pride and Prejudice – this novel that I loved, but that did not really accommodate people like me. It was a completely organic and natural impulse and process. To try again with another Austen novel would be artificial, and it’d show. I wouldn’t dream of it.
As a writer, how do you manage your time? Do you have a set routine or habits that help you tap into your creative energy?
It varies on where I’m at with any particular novel, and other aspects of my life (I have a young family; until quite recently I had a full-time job). At times I’ve woken in the night to get the work done before the kids get up, but at the moment I’m able to work most mornings while the kids are at school – I try and write a thousand words a day. I just walk into town, sit in a coffee shop and write till I’ve got 1000 words down. They don’t have to be perfect; I can fix them later (I think deferring perfection is actually really helpful). At other times I’ll be editing and I don’t worry about wordcounts, I just try and get X amount of pages done. I don’t let myself even consider doing anything other than writing: I can stop and do other things once the writing’s done.
Do you have any plans to revisit the Austen world? Are there any projects on the horizon that you would like to share?
I love the books, so I’ll still be re-reading – and watching any adaptations (and the film of Longbourn) when they come along. But I don’t plan to have any other creative forays into this world.
The next novel is ticking over nicely – though very far from finished. It’s still too raw and unformed for me to really talk about it!
JO BAKER was born in Lancashire and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. The Undertow is her first publication in the United States. She is the author of three previous novels published in the United Kingdom: Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster.