As you may remember I reviewed Jo Baker’s marvellous book Longbourn in July.
To coincide with its publication on 15th August, Jo is taking a blog tour, and I am very pleased to host this last part of that tour. One of the questions asked frequently of authors is “where did you get the idea?”, here Jo talks about her inspiration for Longbourn and the characters you will come to love…
I can’t remember when I decided to write Longbourn. I can’t even remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice. It seems like I’ve always loved it. Jane Austen was my first experience of grown-up literature, and growing up, Pride and Prejudice became my comfort reading, whenever I was feeling unhappy or ill or just exhausted. I’m a sucker for all that buttoned-up desire and wish-fulfillment. I also admire her books enormously, as a writer – the immaculate prose, the deft plotting.
And, like many other readers, I find that my response to Austen is changing over the years. Persuasion, for example, is not the same experience when you’re eighteen as it is when you are thirty-five. Re-reading Pride and Prejudice so many times, I began to see the book a little differently. I realized, that if I’d been living at the time, I wouldn’t have gone to the ball; I’d have never met Mr Darcy. I would’ve been stuck at home, with the housework.
A couple of generations back, many members of my family were in service. My mum still has some battered old silver cutlery, inherited from one of her aunts, who said it was a gift from her employer. My grandmother maintained, however, that she’d nicked it. Stolen or otherwise, the silverware’s indicative of where I come from. Elizabeth is a gentleman’s daughter; this is what gives her standing in the world. Me, I’m not – not in that sense anyway (no offence, Dad.)
Aware of this, I became alert to other presences in Pride and Prejudice; figures who aren’t gentlemen or ladies. A footman enters, a housemaid is sent on an errand. I also begin to realize that some things that seemed just to happen – notes that arrive, carriages that are brought round, meals that are served – did of course require human agency to make them occur. I became fascinated by these little minnow-flickers of activity: I began to see a whole other life going on below the surface of the book.
What stopped me dead in my tracks, though, was the line ‘the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’ In Pride and Prejudice, it’s the week before the ball, and the weather is far too foul for the Bennet girls to venture forth. So they send a servant out on their behalf, to get soaked fetching decorations for their dancing shoes. It just seemed so stark.
Much later, when these ideas and images were beginning to grow and build, and I was starting to think I might just dare write something, I stumbled across a reference in one of Jane Austen’s letters, where she mentions two sisters who she employed to do some sewing for her. Their surname (common enough, in both senses of the word) was Baker. For me, it was a goosebumps moment. It seemed to validate my interests, confirm my instincts – it seemed to give me permission to write.
This year is the 200th anniversary year of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Until November 2012, I had no idea. I mean, I knew Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, but I just didn’t put two and two together – I do tend to be a bit adrift like that. So I was quietly, contentedly writing, lost in my book; I had almost finished when my husband pointed out that the anniversary was just around the corner.
And actually I’m glad I didn’t realize sooner, though it may have saved me some last-minute panic. Adrift, I had written Longbourn under no pressure, and without any expectations whatsoever. I had been able, at the same time, to be a reader of Pride and Prejudice, and the writer of Longbourn. My love for Austen’s novel meant that it was a particular delight for me to decide where I would go in that world, what I’d show, the company I’d keep. And although it was at times a puzzle and a challenge, the writing of Longbourn was, throughout, a total pleasure; I hope the reading of it offers something of that to others too.
If you missed the other parts of the blog tour you can find them here:
Monday: The To-Read Pile
Tuesday: The Book Jotter
Wednesday: What Shall I Read?
Thursday: Pam Reader
They really are worth visiting, giving you a peek into the lives of Longbourn, and introducing you to four wonderful blogs too!
Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is available in hardback from Doubleday on 15th August 2013.
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© Sara-Jayne Donaldson, 2013-2021.