Jo Baker was educated at Oxford and The Queen's University, Belfast. She lives in Lancaster with her husband, the playwright Daragh Carville, and their two children. Her previous books include The Mermaid's Child and The Telling. Longbourn has just been released and is our Book of the Week.
When did you first read Pride and Prejudice?
I must have been quite young – Austen was my first real experience of adult literature, and I’ve re-read it many times since. But I can’t actually remember when I first read it. I feel like I’ve always known it.
Where did you draw your inspiration from for the retelling of life in the Bennet household?
I knew that members of my family had been in service, and this perhaps made me more alert to the servants’ presence in Austen’s novel than I otherwise would have been. The catalyst, though, was re-reading one particular line in Pride and Prejudice: ‘The very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy’. I got snagged on this, couldn’t stop thinking about the reality of what it meant. I wondered who ‘proxy’ might be, and how s/he felt about having to go and fetch decorations for someone else’s dancing shoes, in the pouring rain, when none of the Bennet girls are prepared themselves to go. And that’s when the story started to fizz.
What is it that drew you to Mrs Hill, a familiar character from Pride and Prejudice?
Mrs Hill is such a steady and loyal presence in Austen’s novel – she’s trusted with the knowledge of Lydia’s elopement, for example. I just wanted to find out what lay behind this loyalty, and the Bennets’ trust in her. This is a lifelong relationship, after all – and I wanted to know if it was in any way complicated or ambivalent – because in reality, most longstanding relationships are.
How did you set about creating your character Sarah?
Sarah emerged out of that line in Pride and Prejudice I quoted earlier. It was wondering about ‘Proxy’ that made me come to imagine Sarah – what it was like to be a young woman of much the same age as the Bennet girls, but an entirely different class - with none of their advantages, and put entirely at their disposal. I wanted to understand what that felt like. And then when I started to think about the historical context of the time – the Enclosures, and the long slow decline of the handloom weavers, the absence of a Welfare State, the lack of social mobility and political representation, and the thinness of women’s rights and opportunities. And then, of course, alongside that, simply thinking of her as an actual person – real, and alive in the world, and hungry for experience.
How did you create such vivid details of Longbourn, the Bennet home?
In the village where I grew up, there was a rather decrepit Georgian vicarage. It’s all been redeveloped now, but when I was a kid, we’d play in the overgrown gardens and disused outbuildings. There was a big echoing kitchen (with a few mod-cons added), a necessary house, and even an old disused stable, with a ladder up the back, to the loft. When I came to write Longbourn, I was thinking about Austen’s own family home – the now demolished vicarage at Steventon, and I was paying close attention to the locations in Pride and Prejudice, and of course I did a good bit of research - but I was also channelling a lot of those childhood memories, of both the geography of the buildings and the sensory experience of them - shafts of sun, a walled garden, the scent of old apples, wood worn shiny with use.
What is next for you?
I’m at work on my next book, but it’s early days yet, and I’m feeling quite shy about it.
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