A New York Times Book Review Notable Book, a Seattle Times Best Title, a Christian Science Monitor Best Fiction Book, a Miami Herald Favorite Book, and a Kirkus Best Book of the Year
The servants take center stage in this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice. While Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters fuss over balls and husbands, Sarah, their orphaned housemaid, is beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When a new footman arrives at Longbourn under mysterious circumstances, the carefully choreographed world she has known all her life threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended. Mentioned only fleetingly in Jane Austen’s classic, here Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Regency England and, in doing so, uncovers the real world of the novel that has captivated readers’ hearts around the world for generations.
Excerpted from Longbourn by Jo Baker. Copyright © 2013 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jo Baker was born in Lancashire, England, and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of the novels The Undertow, Offcomer, The Mermaid’s Child, and The Telling. She lives in Lancaster.
Q: Is it safe to assume you have long been a fan of Jane Austen and in particular of Pride and Prejudice?
A: That’s pretty safe. In fact, I can’t even remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice – it seems like I’ve always known it. Jane Austen’s work was my first real experience of grown-up literature, and I’ve kept on returning to her work throughout my life; I just love her books – I’m a sucker for all that buttoned-up desire and wish-fulfillment. But also, as a writer, I admire her – the immaculate prose, the deft plotting, the briskness of the characterization. I didn’t, though, for a moment consider trying to write like her. It’s impossible to do nowadays without shifting into parody – which is something I really did not want.
Q: When did you first get the idea to write LONGBOURN and was there a specific incident that sparked the idea? Can you talk a bit about how your family history in some ways inspired this book?
A: 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.
But Longbourn really began to take shape when I got snagged on the line “the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy”. It’s the week before the ball, the weather is far too bad for the Bennet girls to venture forth, and so they send a servant out to get soaked on their behalf. And that made it really stark for me. A maid has to trudge out in the rain, and get soaked to the skin, just to get these frivolous little decorations for the other women’s dancing shoes.
Then, reading Jane Austen’s letters, I stumbled across a reference to two sisters whom she employed to do some sewing for her. Their surname was Baker. Okay, it’s a common name, but still, the coincidence struck me! It seemed a confirmation of my instincts.
Q: Any hesitation about reimagining a classic? How did you dream up your main characters?
A: I did hesitate. I hesitated for ages. I’d been thinking about this book for years before I first put pen to paper. That said, I don’t really think of it as a “re-imagining”. For me it’s a “reading” of the classic. I just happen to “read” it a bit more intensively than might be usual, to include some elements that Austen didn’t actually write.
I’ll admit that Austen was peering over my shoulder while I was writing. Metaphorically speaking. But, again, when it came to characterization, I didn’t want to write like her; I wanted to develop characters who could hold their own alongside hers, who would create space for themselves, who would be noticed in a crowded room. On a more personal level, I wanted to write characters who interested me, and kept surprising me. And they did.
Q: The Bennets don’t always come off as very sympathetic to their servants. Do you think there was a real divide in terms of those upstairs having any remote idea of the sheer amount of work being done downstairs?
A: There certainly was a sliding scale of familiarity between servants and their employers. In the poorer households, family members would work alongside their servants, and the relationship could be quite close – a servant would often be thought of as a family member. But the richer and more elite the household, and the more servants there were, the less personal contact there would be between the family and the staff. In the grander houses, lower servants were not expected to make eye contact; it’s as if they’re not really there – or not fully real, not considered persons in their own right. Everything would be managed through the senior staff. And yet the relationship there is also incredibly intimate, in terms of personal care, nakedness, and the body.
So the Bennets are somewhere in the middle of that scale. Not as aloof and distant as relations between staff and family might be in the grandest houses, like Pemberley, or even Netherfield, but not as informal as they might be between a grocer’s family and their maid. Mrs. Bennet is, in her own way, very attached to Mrs. Hill, and entirely dependent on her. But she never once thinks of Mrs. Hill’s wellbeing; the very idea would be ridiculous. She is there to perform a function. When it comes down to it, servants are the white goods of their day – the washing machines and dishwashers. One only really gives them any thought at all if they stop working.
Q: I’m sure it was daunting but was it also fun to write this book, to bring to life in your own way all these delicious characters—the Bennets, Mr. Darcy, Wickham, Collins etc.—and have them mingle with your own?
A: It was. Both things. Daunting and fun. One thing that quickly became apparent as I was writing, was that I began to care a good deal about some of Austen’s less prepossessing characters – the embarrassing mother, the gauche sister and the socially inept cousin. We aren’t all blessed with confidence and wit and beauty – some of us find ourselves standing alone at the edge of the party, clutching a warm glass of white wine and trying to look like we’re having fun – but that doesn’t make our feelings and experiences any less valid.
Writing the book was also a chance to examine some of these characters from another angle – Wickham, for example. When you consider the age of the girls he preys upon, from a modern perspective, his behaviour seems more sinister than just fortune-hunting.
Q: What kind of research did you do into what working class/domestic life was like at that time?
A: The domestic detail in Longbourn was gathered from a lot of sources: history books, contemporary domestic guides and recipes and practical research – like cleaning the floors with tea, which I still do. And some of it just comes out of my lived experience. 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; round the back, in the lower garden, there was a door that opened into the space underneath, so that it could be shoveled out. We used to play in the outhouses and grounds as children – it’s all been redeveloped now, but this became Longbourn, when I was writing the book.
I was keen, too, 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. The Triangular Trade – in slaves, and sugar – was the foundation of much of the wealth of the period, and there were centres in several northern ports, particularly Liverpool and my hometown of Lancaster. So that’s where that aspect of the book came from.
Q: One of the most striking parts of LONGBOURN takes place during the Napoleonic war. It’s a chilling description of the wartime experience. Why did you choose to tell this part of the story?
A: There’s a throwaway line of Lydia’s, when she’s filling her sisters in on gossip that they’d missed while Jane was ill at Netherfield: “a private had been flogged.” To the family it’s not a subject for polite conversation, but I found myself stuck on this line, thinking about what it really meant, about the reality of soldiering in this period. I found myself thinking about not the dashing Militia officers in their scarlet coats, but the ordinary foot-soldiers who came back from the front lines damaged, scarred.
Q: What do you think Jane Austen would make of LONGBOURN?
A: I dread to think.
And I’d be terrified to meet her (if such a thing were possible). Aside from the outrage I’ve committed in writing Longbourn, I have such a massive crush on her, as a writer, that I’d be completely incapacitated by it. I’d be shambolic, stammering and self-conscious, and if she deigned to say anything to me at all, I wouldn’t be able to put two words together in reply.
But then I also identify with her. The Letters – which are of course incomplete – really do give an insight into the woman, as well as the writer, and the work. She can be sniffy and irritable, as well as loving and loyal and brilliantly generous – there’s a wonderful sequence where she writes warm and supportive letters to her niece, advising her about a novel she has written. But then, when you read on, you come upon another letter to someone else, in which she gripes about the unrealistic niece, the messy book, and the bother of it all. To get these real, honest glimpses of her is brilliant.
Q: So what is next for you? Any other classics you are thinking of taking on?
A: Moby Dick from the whale’s point of view.
But I have started work on the next book. I’m really excited about it. It’s different to Longbourn in many ways, but there are similar themes – war, exodus, love; finding a place for yourself in an uncaring world.
I’ve completely fallen for my central characters again.
The staff at Longbourn is in many ways a family: Mrs. Hill, the motherly housekeeper; her husband, who sees to tasks both inside and outside the mansion; Sarah, the hardworking housemaid; and young Polly, the naïve, often distracted assistant to Mrs. Hill and Sarah. When a new footman named James Smith arrives, things change for all of them-especially for the independent-minded Sarah, whose initial disdain for James gives way to feelings she has never experienced before.
As the household frets over the future of the family estate, the Bennet girls navigate the complexities of finding husbands, and Sarah awakens to her own romantic choices, Jo Baker reveals both the vast distance between and intimate connections among the inhabitants of Longbourn. A brilliant reimagining of Austen's beloved novel, Longbourn is also a portrait of the disappointments, dreams, struggles, and secrets of the lower classes that stands entirely on its own.
1. "He was such a frustrating mixture of helpfulness, courtesy and incivility that she could indeed form no clear notion of him" (p. 39). What lies at the heart of Sarah's confusion about James? Are her feelings based on misapprehensions of James's attitude toward her? Is James responsible for creating the false impressions and mixed signals Sarah finds so frustrating? If so, what does it reflect about his confusion and lack of experience? Are James's perceptions of Sarah as limited as her perceptions of him? Why or why not?
2. Despite the great difference between their stations in life, in what ways are both Sarah and Elizabeth defined by the social strictures of the time? Are their assumptions about what they can and cannot achieve dictated by society or do they reflect their individual personalities?
3. Why is Sarah attracted to Mr. Bingley's servant Ptolemy? What effect does his attention have on her and her sense of herself as a woman? Does their flirtation influence her behavior with James? In the end, what does James offer her that is lacking in her relationship with Ptolemy?
4. Discuss the significance of the discoveries Sarah makes when she secretly explores James's room (pp. 64-65). What does the scene reveal about Sarah's grasp of the emotional complexities behind James's carefully constructed façade? In what respects in this a turning point in the novel?
5. What similarities are there between the progression of the courtships of Sarah and James and of Elizabeth and Darcy? What part does pride play in the way Sarah initially responds to James? Is Elizabeth guilty of the same kind of misplaced pride in her rejection of Darcy's first marriage proposal?
6. Are James and Sarah more open and honest with themselves and with each other than Darcy and Elizabeth? Is Sarah able to act on her feelings and make decisions in a way that the Bennet girls cannot? How does this affect the way her relationship with James unfolds? Discuss, for example, Sarah's and James's lack of inhibitions about (and downright enjoyment of) sex.
7. Baker details the harsh daily life of Sarah and the other servants. In addition to the descriptions of the backbreaking work they perform-from hauling water on freezing mornings and emptying chamber pots to scrubbing dishes, laundering mud-spattered petticoats, and washing rags soaked with menstrual blood-how does she illustrate the more subtle yet no less humiliating aspects of being a servant? What particular interactions between the Bennets and various members of the staff bring out the true nature of the relationship between the classes?
8. Baker also draws a sweeping historical picture that is largely absent from Pride and Prejudice, including insights into economic and social realities that influence everything from the privileges enjoyed by the wealthy to institutions such as the military. Does the fact that Mr. Bingley's wealth comes from sugar and tobacco, industries dependent on the exploitation of slave labor, affect your understanding of the world the Bennets inhabitant? Discuss the difference between what the Militia represents in Pride and Prejudice and the way it is depicted in Longbourn.
9. Why do you think Baker includes the long section devoted to James's experiences during the Napoleonic Wars (pp. 246-59)? Were you taken aback by the brutality Baker describes? What do James's actions and their consequences show about the prejudices and injustices suffered by young men like James? What facets of his character come to light? How does his experience as a soldier enhance James's role as a romantic hero?
10. Baker continues her story a bit beyond the ending of Pride and Prejudice. Do you find her speculations about what happens to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, their daughter Mary, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and Polly, satisfying (pp. 325-27)?
11. Polly and Sarah are both orphans, a common character in nineteenth-century novels, including such well-known works as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Why is a child who has lost or been abandoned by her parents such a persistent and powerful figure? Are there similarities between Sarah and Brontë’s Jane Eyre?
12. Another motif Longbourn shares with several nineteenth-century novels (particularly works in the Gothic tradition) is the mysterious or hidden background of a significant character—James in this work, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, the woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. What hints does Baker give about James’s origins when he first appears? How does the truth about him evolve and become clearer for both Sarah and the reader? Are the connections between James and members of the household believable? How do you think Jane Austen, whose Northanger Abbey is a famous parody of the Gothic novel, would react to this aspect of Longbourn?
13. Are there aspects of Longbourn that you were surprised to find in a literary novel set in the nineteenth century? In what ways does Longbourn reflect and embrace the sensibilities of the twenty-first century? Discuss, for example, Mr. Hill's secret life; the portrayal of Mr. Bingley's servant Ptolemy; the graphic descriptions of Sarah and James's sexual encounters; and Sarah's decision to leave Pemberley and set out on her own.
14. Does a reader's enjoyment of Longbourn depend on a familiarity with Pride and Prejudice? How does Baker assert an independent voice and vision while using the framework of Austen's novel?
15. Several books inspired by Pride and Prejudice have recently been published. How does Longbourn compare to other books you have read about the lives of the Bennets and the Darcys? Why do you think reworkings of Austen have become so popular?