Jane Austen below stairs
by Jo Baker
10 May 2017
Ahead of her talk as part of British Academy Literature Week, acclaimed author Jo Baker tells us why she decided to re-tell Pride and Prejudice from the servants' perspective in her novel Longbourn.
Longbourn came out of a longstanding love of Austen. I reach for her books when times are difficult or distressing or just, well, changing. Her work has taken me through essay crises and dodgy boyfriends and moving house and moving country and moving in together and getting married and having babies. If I’ve got flu I need Austen as much as I need Aspirin.
I was introduced to her work when I was twelve, which is when we were streamed at school. I found myself sitting beside the same girl in every subject apart from maths (I’m really bad at maths). The girl introduced herself as Emma, and said that she was named after Emma from Emma. Off my blank look, appalled, she offered to lend me her copies of the Austen novels. I accepted one (Emma), got hooked, bought my own copies, raced through them, then scrabbled around for any scraps, and could only find a Virago edition of the Juvenilia. The fact is, there really not quite enough Austen; just that small handful of catnip-addictive stories that leave you wanting just a little smackerel more… which is partly why those re-imaginings, the prequels, sequels, and, in my case, subquel (it’s what’s going on underneath the other story) have proved so popular. The odd thing was, really, that at twelve I hadn’t met her work already. I grew up in a household full of books, but Austen’s weren’t among them. Mum had been put off her by studying Mansfield Park for O level, and just didn’t have them in the house. So it was that chance seating arrangement in a Cumbrian comprehensive in 1985 that started off my love of Austen, and a friendship, both of which have endured, at time of writing, for thirty two years.
Oddly, my novel also comes out of a failure of imagination: much as I’d love to, I can’t quite imagine myself in Elizabeth Bennet’s shoes, but I could imagine myself cleaning them. Peel back my family just a couple of generations and our poverty was not genteel: one grandma worked barefoot in a thread-mill, the other was in service. Austen’s world of balls and inheritances and country houses is not my world. I love being there, but I don’t quite belong.
And Longbourn also comes out of just one single solitary line in Pride and Prejudice.
I was deep in one of my innumerable re-readings, at home on the sofa with a battered old paperback and the flu. Then I found myself stalled, staring one line, at the words themselves, at their inky print upon the page, and considering the reality of what they signified.
The particular line comes in the lead up to the Netherfield Ball, when it has been raining for days. The roads are deep in mud, the footpaths sodden, there’s no way the Bennet sisters are going to venture forth, and so: ‘The very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’ And I found myself thinking, ‘Who is “Proxy”?’ – and how does she feel (‘Proxy’ very soon became ‘she’ in my imagination) about having to go to fetch shoe-roses in the pouring rain? Shoe-roses, I discovered, are those little pom-pom things that women would fasten to the toes of their dancing shoes, to peep out from under the hems of their ballgowns and look pretty. There are two housemaids mentioned in Pride and Prejudice, but only one of them gets a name: Sarah became, in my imagination, the proxy sent out into the filthy weather to fetch fripperies for other young women so that they can look lovely at a ball that she can’t possibly ever hope to attend. I wanted to know she felt about this. And soon I wanted to know everything about her.
I started reading Austen differently; I started noticing the things that weren’t there. I noticed moments in the text when human agency is required – when a carriage was ‘brought round’, or a meal ‘served’, or a message ‘delivered’ – but no human agent is mentioned. The book became haunted, for me, with ghostly presences that existed only to serve the household and the story. They did not get to have stories of their own, and, given my background, I found that unsettling: servants are people too. That message, for example – that little piece of hot-pressed paper – was delivered by somebody, and that somebody was from the new household at Netherfield Park; so what did he think of being transplanted to Hertfordshire, and was he happy to be sent out with messages across the cow-ridden muddy countryside? And all those questions lead me to find an individual, Ptolemy, where Austen had found simply a device to shift her plot along.
I don’t for a moment think that Austen’s work would be improved if she had thought to look below stairs too. Her novels are classically beautiful; they work perfectly, like a piece of clockwork. They don’t need anything more, or anything less. Longbourn was just my way of exploring her world – a world I love but don’t belong in – in a way that felt true for me. I in Sarah’s shoes I could sneak away from the fancy rooms, the formal gatherings; I could open doors and peer inside, overhear conversations, open cupboards and jars and sniff the contents; I could feel the sunshine and shiver in the draughts and squelch along in the mud with her, as she went to fetch shoe-roses in the pouring rain.
Jo Baker will talk about her novel Longbourn on 16 May as part of British Academy Literature Week. For more information and to book your free ticket, visit www.britac.ac.uk/events/re-telling-pride-and-prejudice.