On Wednesday night I had the honor of attending a reading and book signing by Jo Baker, author of the recently released novel Longbourn, at the University Bookstore in Seattle. About forty people attended the event in celebration of National Reading Group Month and sponsored by the Seattle Chapter of Women’s National Book Association.
I had put out the call to my local JASNA-Puget Sound members and other Austen friends in anticipation of an entertaining evening. Joining in the Janeite fanmob were authors Shannon Winslow (Darcys of Pemberley), Susan Mason-Milks (Mr. Darcy’s Proposal), Katherine Reay (Dear Mr. Knightley), Marian LaBeck (King Co. librarian and JASNA-Puget Sound member) and JoAnn Silkes (UW research scientist and all-around Austenite).
Longbourn is the retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of Sarah, a young servant in the Bennet household. The novel garnered quite a bit of press last February when an auction ensued between publishers for its rights. The winners were Transworld in the UK, Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S., and Random House in Canada. Random House Studio and Focus Features secured the film rights, and translation rights have been sold in Spain, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Brazil, France, and Sweden. According to a press release, “Longbourn will reveal ‘the tragic consequences of the Napoleonic Wars and focus on a romance between a newly arrived footman and a housemaid, the novel’s main characters,’ while at the same time offering a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation for balls, the chaos in the servants’ quarter, and the housekeeper’s real thoughts about Mr. Bennet.” This was indeed an auspicious beginning. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy, and it did not disappoint.
Back to the event, sans red-carpet, but with a beautiful young author in a stylish little black dress and calf boots, whose poised and calm demeanor only heightened our anticipation of her talk, hopefully revealing all of the inside details on how she did it—created a new story around one of literature’s gems—and managed to bring the publishing world to its knees!
Jo shared her life-long passion for Jane Austen initiated by a young school mate in England who introduced herself as Emma, named after Emma, in Emma. Ha! For the benefit of those who don’t understand the inside Austen joke, her friend was referring to Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s eponymous heroine of her 1815 novel. This was a great beginning. Jo had read and re-read Austen throughout her life, including taking a copy of Pride and Prejudice with her to the hospital when her son was born. She further explained that most likely her ancestors would not have been attending balls with the five Bennet sisters, but deeply entrenched in the downstairs life in preparation of it. She came from a long line of servants, her grandmother and great aunts working in service in the London area. Because of this, she was keenly aware of Austen’s upstairs perspective in her novels, and when a servant did appear, it was brief, peaking her curiosity. When she read in chapter 17 that “the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy,” it set her minds adrift and wondering about who went for them in the pouring rain? That would eventually be her character Sarah who catches a cold in pursuit of vanity for her mistresses. Other life experiences played upon her creation of her novel’s environment. Having grown up in the North of England in a small community, she had the benefit of playing with a school mate whose father was a vicar residing in a Georgian-era rectory that was almost period intact which she used as inspiration for the Longbourn household, stables and yard. She also read three passages from the novel illustrating a skill with beautiful language that Austen would have approved of.
Janeite fanmob left to right: JoAnn Silkes, Marian LaBeck, Katherine Reay, Jo Baker, Susan Mason-Milks, Shannon Winslow and Laurel Ann Nattress
After we had our copies personally inscribed, pictures where snapped by paparazzi (University Bookstore event coordinator Sarina), and the event concluded. But, the night was not over yet. Beforehand, I had asked Jo’s publicist if the author would like to join our Janeite fanmob for dinner at a local Indian restaurant, Shalimar, after the event to continue the discussion. She graciously agreed. Squee! I had a list of pressing questions about her writing process, plot and character choices burning a hole through my notebook. With my well-read and margin-noted copy of Longbourn in hand, we trekked to the restaurant, had an amazing time laughing, swapping Austen stories and learning the inside details of a writer’s process.
It was an evening that I will long remember. Susan Mason-Milks was so enchanted by Jo that she attended a second event featuring her the next day at Queen Ann Books. Lucky girl.
“My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’
‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best.”—Persuasion
Austen Power column display at University Bookstore!
© 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com