This new book, whose title will certainly catch the attention of any Janeite, has garnered quite a bit of press since its publication was announced last January, including a handsome film deal with Focus Features (Universal Pictures) who brought us the 2005 Keira Knightley and Mathew Macfayden Pride and Prejudice.
Jo’s novel has a clever premise: it is Jane Austen’s classic tale from Pride and Prejudice told entirely from the perspective of the servants at the Longbourn household who wait upon Elizabeth Bennet and her family. I have had the pleasure of reading an advance copy and enjoyed it thoroughly.
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined below stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.
I’ve been a fan of Jane Austen since I was twelve. I can date it quite precisely like that because it was my friend Emma who introduced me to the books. She and I became close when we were streamed at the end of our first year at Secondary School, and found ourselves in the same class for almost everything. Introducing herself, she told me she was named ‘Emma’ after Emma from Emma; I looked at her blankly, and then, after a moment of being appalled, she graciously introduced me to the wonderful novels of Jane Austen.
Since then, I’ve re-read Austen’s novels more times than I can remember, through exam stress and housemoves and thesis-crises and wedding stress and newborns and 3am feeds. I re-read copies till the pages came adrift. I even packed Pride & Prejudice in my overnight bag when I went into hospital to have my son. Which was a tad unrealistic, but it does go to show how those books have become a comfort blanket for me.
But however much I loved losing myself in that world, I’ve also always known that if I’d been living at that time, I would not have got to go to the ball.
Members of my family were, until quite recently, in service: my Nan (my mum’s mum) and her sisters all worked as maids. Knowing this meant that when I read Austen’s books I was more alert to the servants’ presence than I otherwise would have been. I was also aware of the servants’ absence: I found myself noticing events that took place which required human agency – a message delivered, a meal served, a carriage brought round – but where no mention was made of the persons performing the tasks: I realized that there were other people in the room – ghostly presences, who existed to serve the family and the story, but who were, at least to my mind, as fully human as anybody else.
But my story really began to unfold when I got snagged on one particular line in Austen’s novel. It’s the week before the Netherfield Ball; it has been raining for days, the roads are awash, the footpaths deep in mud, and there’s no way the Bennet girls are going to venture forth – and so ‘the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’ I thought: “Who’s ‘proxy’?” And how did she (she was soon ‘she’; and she was soon one of the ‘two housemaids’) feel about going out in the filthy weather to fetch decorations for other women’s dancing shoes?
The book emerged from this, and other moments like this – lines in Pride and Prejudice that set me thinking, made me want to open up an area and explore it a little more. For example, Bingley’s ‘five thousand a year’ is inherited from a father who made his money in trade in the north. Now, much of the new wealth in Britain at this time was gained through the sugar and tobacco and slave trades: there were major ports serving these trades in the north of England. This, it seemed to me, merited further examination. And it was much the same thing with the Army. In Pride and Prejudice, the officers are objects of romantic interest to the girls – but there is also a throwaway line of Lydia’s – ‘a private had been flogged.’ It brought me up sort: I wanted to explore the reality behind such a brutal act. And that lead me to finding out about the Militia, a military force used to subdue rebellion at home, while the Regulars were shipped overseas to fight.
Longbourn begins a little before the start of Pride and Prejudice, and continues beyond Austen’s happy ending. Where they overlap, they match day for day – so when a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn, when a carriage is ordered in Austen’s novel, someone has run to harness the horses in mine, and when a message is delivered to Jane or Elizabeth, one of my characters has had to trudge with it from one house to the other. It was a challenge to map my book so precisely onto the existing novel, but it was also a pleasure to work with Pride and Prejudice open on the desk in front of me.
Longbourn comes out of my love for Austen’s work, coupled with the desire to somehow locate myself within it; I wanted to slip away from the breakfast room, where Austen’s characters were gathered, and go down to the kitchen, and out into the scullery and stable yard, and find out what was going on there.
Jo Baker was born in Lancashire, England, and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of The Undertow and of three earlier novels published in the United Kingdom: Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster and her newest novel is Longbourn. Visit Jo on Facebook as Jo Baker, Writer.
Longbourn: A Novel, by Jo Baker
Alfred A. Knopf (2013)
Hardcover (352) pages
Cover image courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf © 2013; text Jo Baker © 2013, Austenprose.com