Ideas for books are – at least in my experience – gathered unwittingly. Lots of apparently inert elements accumulate over time. And then something new drips in – a catalyst – and it all begins to fizz.
The first element of Longbourn is nose-on-your-face obvious. I love Jane Austen’s work, even the juvenilia (if you haven’t read it, do – it’s brilliantly funny and silly, clearly written to get a laugh out of her family). But Pride and Prejudice is a lifelong obsession of mine, and the only book I re-read as an adult. It’s all that restraint, the buttoned-up desire – and ultimate wish-fulfillment. It’s irresistible.
The second element in this case – I only realise this now that I’m required to think about it – is the accident of where I grew up. We lived in a perfectly nice, ordinary house on the edge of a 1960s estate in a small village in the North of England. Next door was a big Georgian house – not quite a stately home; what an estate agent might call a “Gentleman’s Residence”. We had a garden; they had grounds. We had a goldfish pond; they had a swimming pool. In the summer, they’d have parties. Bedroom window open on a hot night, I’d hear the laughter and the loud voices and the music coming over the high wall: it all sounded so glamorous. We were never invited.
Well, not never. When I was 18, I got a place at Oxford, and then I was invited. I set aside my inverted snobbery, and I went. Because, of course, this was Society. This was the County Set. This – my frame of reference at the time was pretty much limited to the books that I had read (actually, it pretty much still is) – was the kind of parties that the Bennet girls went to. I went in high spirits…but it was astonishingly dull. Thimblefuls of sherry, talk of weather, the hunt and, if not the state of the roads, then the new Jag. I was bored, disappointed – everything I said seemed out of place and made people look at me askance. I, for all my good A levels and place at Oxford, clearly did not belong.
The servant story
It was a class thing, of course. My parents were beneficiaries of the Butler Education Act (they went to university) but my grandma was a housemaid, as were all her sisters. I’m just a couple of generations away from service myself. Knowing this, when I re-read Pride and Prejudice, I noticed the flickers of servants’ activity in the book.
When Elizabeth got her petticoats muddy, I wondered who washed them. Who carried the notes along the rutted lanes from Netherfield to Longbourn? And I found myself snared on the line ‘the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’ Re-reading that line was when things began to hiss and fizz. Because, of course, ‘proxy’ is a person too. And though the weather is far too foul for the Bennet sisters to venture forth, poor old Proxy has to get soaked to the skin fetching decorations for the young ladies’ dancing-shoes.
For me, character is revealed by action. It’s true of life as well as fiction: what someone does when they’re hard-pressed, when it’s not an easy decision, when desire is in conflict with morality or convention or even other desires – it tells you all you need to know about a person. And re-reading Pride and Prejudice, these domestic servants in the Bennet household began to reveal themselves to me in this way.
Housekeeper Mrs Hill chooses to remain steadily loyal to the Bennets, however difficult they might be; the footman chooses to be a servant when he could easily command better wages and higher status elsewhere (working men were at a premium with all the manpower required by the Navy, the Army, and to work the land); a pair of young women do all the labour of the house, waiting on other women of much their age, and having none of their privileges. I started wonder about their motivation, and emotions, and inner and outward conflicts. Then I noticed that the Bennets’ footman is mentioned just once, on p31 of my edition, and is never mentioned again. He just, well, disappears. And from there, the stories just began to tell themselves.
Of course, in Longbourn, Austen’s main characters loom large for the servants: while there is a necessary distance – a layer of ice – between servant and employer, these are longstanding and in some ways quite intimate relationships. What I’ve tried to do here is shift the perspective, so that we see them from a new angle – which has also enabled me to find a good deal of sympathy for some of Austen’s less prepossessing characters. I really felt for Mr Collins’ gaucheness, his lack of social and physical grace. And as for Mrs Bennet, well – she’s the mother of teenage daughters. No wonder she’s embarrassing.
There’s a slew of books that riff on Pride and Prejudice, and there are of course dozens of adaptations and versions for film and television, from Lost in Austen to Bride and Prejudice. But for me, Longbourn follows a different, if rather more slender, tradition. It follows Jean Rhys’ reclamation of Bertha Mason in Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s exploration of the interchangeable figures swept up by Hamlet’s tragedy in Rozencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead. It’s a similar starting point – a writer finding a sympathetic interest in the predicament of another writer’s unloved minor characters. A desire to allow them space, to accord to them their humanity; to account for their struggles, and to tell their stories.
Longbourn by Jo Baker is published on 15 August by Doubleday.