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Thursday, November 28, 2013

"Longbourn" by Jo Baker~Fabulous "Downstairs!"


Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •
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 belowstairs 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.


Published by:  Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Pages:  352
Genre:  Fiction
Author:  Jo Baker
Find this book:  Amazon
Author's website: 


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.

YouTube live with Ms Baker:



Interviews & Essays   (with thanks to Barnes & Noble)

A conversation with Jo Baker, Author of Longbourn

Have you always been a fan of Jane Austen and in particular of Pride and Prejudice?

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.

How did your family history in some ways inspire Longbourn?

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.

Any hesitation about reimagining a classic?

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.

Is there a character in Longbourn that you feel a particular affinity for?

I think I feel affinity for aspects of every one of them, really - I think when you're writing you seek to understand what's going on behind everybody's social mask. Writing fiction is all about empathy, really. So though we might be rooting for Sarah or James, I still love Mrs Bennet for her unarticulated sadness, and Mr. Hill for his acts of kindness, even though he might be gruff. Even Wickham, whose behaviour is dreadful - I do feel for him, because in this rigid, formal world he lacks a place - he doesn't belong anywhere.

What kind of feedback have you had from readers and Austen fans?

Readers, on the whole, whether already Austen fans or no - have been overwhelmingly positive. I've only had a very few entirely negative responses to the book so far - and in each case from people who hadn't actually read it. One gentleman was keen to inform me about an ancestor of his who was testified against by a servant - the servant had witnessed him in 'criminal conversation' with a married lady. This was in the 1700s; the family had to ten thousand pounds in compensation to the lady's husband, and the young man was banished to France. The present-day gentleman seemed be holding a grudge against servants in general as a result. He certainly seemed to think they didn't merit the attention I had given them.

Who have you discovered lately?

I've been reading Graham Robb's marvelous book Parisians: an Adventure History of Paris. A kind of psychogeography, it moves from the establishment of the city of Paris to the present day, using the stories of individual inhabitants to trace the history of a city. There's a fabulous section on Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI's attempted escape, and the piece on the Vel d'Hiv roundup was so desperate and moving that I had to read it sidelong, not really looking. A fabulous book.


If you're looking for a book to snuggle up with over this Thanksgiving weekend, look no further whether you're an Austen fan (or not).  This is a new  "Pride and Prejudice" -inspired novel with more grace and panache than any I've read in the past few years. It's also a wonderful stand alone novel in its own right.  I absolutely gobbled it down like pumpkin pie...or mincemeat treats, shall we say?  Loved it!

Jo Baker is no novice author and it shows.  She has a way with words and uses them to perfect descriptive timing in her new book.  This is a beautifully written story.  The characters are wistfully and masterfully drawn.  You won't be able to resist these downstairs servants.  The way they think and feel will grab you by the collar and clinch your heart.  Even the characters of P & P are enhanced by them.  I dare you not to be enchanted by the strong-of-heart and hand, Sarah.

"Longbourn" is one of those books you just love to cherish in every way.  It's original and charming, and it's a fabulous "downstairs" read without being a copycat "Downton Abbey" or the like.

Happy reading and Happy Thanksgiving!!

5 stars                    Deborah/TheBookishDame



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