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Below Stairs at Longbourn: Jo Baker talks to Hazel Gaynor

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Hazel Gaynor © 16 January 2014.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Historical Fiction · Interviews · Special Guests ).

Jo Baker’s Longbourn – Pride & Prejudice, the servants’ story – was published to rave reviews in 2013, a year which saw the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Longbourn is very brave in its premise and extremely elegant in its execution. When I turned the last page I immediately wanted to know more about the author and just how this wonderful novel came to be, so I was delighted to put my questions to Jo Baker.

Firstly, I was interested to know when Jo first read Pride & Prejudice and why it stuck with her to the extent that she based her own novel on it 200 years after the original was first published.

‘I don’t know exactly when I first read Pride & Prejudice, but I was introduced to Austen’s work when I was12, by my friend Emma, who told me she was named ‘Emma’ after Emma from Emma. So it must have been around that time that I first read P&P – I devoured all of Austen’s work, even hunting out her juvenilia and her unfinished Sanditon when I was just a kid myself. It was only over time, and with re-reading, that favourites have emerged. P&P, along with Persuasion, just linger in my imagination. I’ve got quite a few editions of the book, some lovely – gifts since Longbourn was published – and some shabby paperbacks practically worn out with re-reading, and one ‘working’ copy which shamefully I’ve written all over.

So, exactly how does the love of a classic work of literature manifest itself into an idea for a novel, such as Longbourn?

HIGHER FEES APPLY. British author Jo Baker pictured at her publisher's office.‘I’d always known my family had been in service – my Grandma and her sisters had worked as housemaids – and this had, from an early age, somewhat skewed my reading of Austen. I loved her work, but I didn’t ‘belong’ in that world. I knew if I’d lived then I wouldn’t have got to go the ball, I’d have been stuck home washing muddy petticoats. But it was on one re-reading of P&P that I just got stuck on a phrase, and couldn’t get past it. It’s the week before the Netherfield ball, it’s been raining for days, the footpaths are awash, the roads are deep in mud, 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 just thought, ‘who’s proxy?’ and everything else followed on from that.’

No doubt, taking a new angle on such a well-loved novel was a daunting prospect. I asked Jo if she ever worried about stepping into such a well-loved, well-known story. Her response surprised me, and serves as sound advice for writers who may be tempted to spend too much time worrying about what everyone will think of their work.

‘I didn’t worry at all, not while I was working on it anyway. I was writing it for myself as much as anything – to answer that question, ‘who’s proxy?’, and to locate myself in this world that I loved, but where I didn’t feel I belonged.  So I didn’t think about what people might think, or consider the book’s reception at all while I was writing it. It was only when the book began to generate a bit of buzz – translations, film deals, that kind of thing – that I thought, oh cripes, what have I done?

Fortunately, the critical acclaim has been nothing short of stellar, so I think Jo can breathe a very huge sigh of relief!

When reading Longbourn, there is a wonderful sense of Jane Austen meandering through the pages. I wondered to what extent Jo had adapted her writing style or voice to marry it with Austen’s.

‘I’ve been re-reading her books over and over for 28 years so I think to some degree that’s enabled me to internalize some of the vocabulary and syntax of the day. My main decision about voice and style was that I was not going to attempt to write like her. I didn’t want to drift into parody – what I wanted was an echo of her voice. I felt if I could achieve that I’d be happy.’

Life ‘downstairs’ at Longbourn is captured so brilliantly and authentically in this novel. As an historical novelist myself, I am fascinated by research methods and asked Jo to give an insight into the research she carried out for Longbourn, both in terms of referencing Pride & Prejudice and in giving so much detail about domestic duties and life during that period.

‘I did a lot of reading of course – social and cultural histories, letters, recipes and remedies. There was also – it almost goes without saying – a very close reading of Pride and Prejudice itself, as Longbourn is woven so closely into it: when a meal is served in Austen’s novel it has been prepared in mine; when the Bennet girls arrive at a ball in Pride and Prejudice they have left the carriage waiting in Longbourn. I also undertook quite a bit of practical research – trying out some of the old cleaning methods – scrubbing tables with salt, cleaning my floors with tea, that kind of thing.’

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And what about the main characters in Longbourn – Sarah, Mrs. Hill, Polly, James and Ptolemy? As I was reading the novel, I wondered whether they were entirely of the author’s imagining, or if they were drawn from references in Pride & Prejudice?

‘Where there are names available in P&P, I used them (Sarah, Mrs Hill) but the footman, butler, and second housemaid don’t get named, so I had to make decisions for them (eg, marrying Mrs. Hill to the Butler, and thereby avoiding a proliferation of names). Ptolemy being black might seem to come out of the blue, but the Bingleys made their money in Trade, in the north – and the most remunerative trade of the day is that in sugar, tobacco, and slaves, which is partly where that decision comes from. But there’s also a reference in Austen’s letters to a black manservant at a neighbouring household, which gave my decision substance. In terms of their actual characters, I just took their predicament as suggested by Pride & Prejudice – for example, Mrs. Hill as the trusted loyal servant – and unpicked it a little, to examine motivations and complications, and wonder what a housekeeper might know, or have seen, in all her years of loyal service. Sometimes I’d apply historical detail to the situation described in Pride & Prejudice. From my research I knew how expensive and sought-after menservants were at this time of war, how men were needed for the army, navy and to work the land. This just made me ask the question, why does this footman choose to serve in a modest provincial house, when more money could be made or more adventure had elsewhere? And Sarah emerged almost fully-formed from that question about ‘proxy’. Sent out to fetch decorations for other women’s dancing shoes in the filthy weather, how does she feel about her situation in life? And what is she prepared to do to change it?

Of course, however brilliant your idea and however powerful that initial spark of inspiration for a novel, it takes a great deal of time, dedication and passion to nurture and tend it into a fully formed novel. I asked Jo over what period of time Longbourn was written.

‘I’d been daydreaming about this novel for decades; I’d been researching it – on and off – for about six years. I wrote it in two years. It was an organic process, of writing and shaping so that my story fitted into the existing novel. On a detailed level – the day of the week, who’s in which room, what’s for dinner – it could be quite challenging, but in terms of the story itself, it seemed to just slot itself cleanly into place around the existing narrative – it was at no point a struggle – it just seemed to fit.’

When an author writes a novel which captures the imagination of so many, catapulting them into the media and the mythical land of movie deals, it is hard to imagine what their writing day looks like. Jo gives an insight into hers – which is reassuringly normal.

‘It depends on where I’m at with a particular book – but ideally it’ll be sloping off from the house and down to a café in town, where I’ll write for the morning. ‘Mornings’ are quite long – it can be still the morning for me at 2.30 or 3 o’clock, which is when I’ll break and eat something. I can’t really go back to writing after that, so the rest of the day is ‘other stuff’ – family, domestic, admin. It wasn’t always like this though – there was a tricky time when I had a full time job too  – and that meant writing in the middle of the night – 3am to 7am. The Sylvia Plath sift we called it. Not sustainable.’

So, with several novels behind her, and now the incredible success of Longbourn, I asked Jo what advice she would offer to aspiring writers? Her reply was short and to the point. ‘Read lots. And write lots.’

Simple!

Jo Baker will be at the Dublin Writers’ Festival this spring. Longbourn is now available in paperback.

Visit Jo’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/jobakerwriter

(c) Hazel Gaynor

Hazel Gaynor is an author and freelance writer in Ireland and the UK.

In addition to writing historical fiction, Hazel writes a popular guest blog, Carry on Writing, for national Irish writing website writing.ie. She also writes feature author interviews for the site and has interviewed Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Cheryl Strayed, Daisy Waugh and Mary Beth Keane, among others.

In October 2012, Hazel was awarded the Cecil Day Lewis Award for Emerging Writers. She appeared at Waterford Writer’s Weekend in 2012 and 2013 and will be speaking at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference in 2014.

Originally from North Yorkshire, England, Hazel now lives in Ireland with her husband, two young children and an accident-prone cat.

The Girl Who Came Home is her first novel (Harper Collins) Hazel is represented by Michelle Brower at Folio Literary Management, New York.