Not a prequel, nor a sequel, but a subquel, is what Jo Baker calls her newest work Longbourn, and we happened to chance upon her reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore on College Avenue, Berkeley one recent Friday evening, where we got schooled on what a subquel is and how Ms. Baker mapped Austen’s Pride & Prejudice page by page to create her downstairs novel that mirrors the upstairs drama of the Bennetts Family.
We had gone as a lark to buy a birthday present, and Ms. Baker seemed just as surprised to be in Berkeley as we were to catch her reading. Self-conscious in the most charming manner, tapping around in slim lace up oxfords, tights and a shirt dress, she bit her lip often, fidgeted with enthusiasm and affected each character’s voice as she read her work and then spoke informally about her process with the intimate crowd of readers, cracking witticisms that sparked a literary crush for your salonniere. Ms. Baker is sharp, funny, and so down-to-earth, she’d no doubt give Lizzie a run for her money.
A confessed Austenite through and through, Baker admitted to reading the novels repeatedly and had even grabbed one on her way to hospital before giving birth to her son, as if she’d have any time to crack open the spine. Longbourn had been hatched after a repeat reading of P&P where a certain line snagged, a line during a scene when rain was about to ruin the wash at the Bennett household and someone had to fetch the laundry as it stormed outside. Austen had written that the clothes were fetched by proxy, and Baker knew that proxy had “human agency.”
Other lines snagged at her as well, which caused her to wonder who brought the carriages around for the Bennett sisters, so they could get to the Netherfield Ball on time, and who mended their dresses, cleaned their sheets and fixed the breakfast? So she mapped her novel, page by page and minute by minute, in order to force the invisible hands that made the Bennett household comfortable and cosy out of the shadows. Austen references only a few of the domestic help in P&P; there is Sarah and Mrs. Hill and the Bennetts at some point hire a male servant, which was a very fashionable thing to do because most able men were away fending off Napoleon and his troops, so there was a high tax to have a working man in the house. Baker wanted to know about all the other hands of the house, and she used a backwash of events to shape what occurred downstairs.
Owning several copies of P&P, one of which destroyed because she marked every page and the dialogue, and stole several snippets of Austen’s most famous conversations, which are overheard from the servants. She noted who was in the room, what they were doing, and where they were going, and also committed a lot of historical research, especially in regards to how the Napoleonic war affected the daily lives of these people in the domestic sphere.
She was very open about how her family inspired this book as well. Her mother’s side mainly worked in service and rarely were promoted up the ranks of domestic work. Baker pointedly stated that someone of her background and certainly her grandparents and their grandparents would have never been able to attend the balls and social events that Lizzie, Jane, Lydia, Mary, and Kitty were required to attend. In the same vein, Baker tackles the sugar trade and slavery that Austen only hints at, but Baker makes front and center in her story.
During the Q&A, one attendee asked what she was working on next and Ms. Baker joked she was tackling Moby Dick from the voice of the whale. It was mainly going to be a lot of vowels and she might do the audio book for it in her own voice, but she was quick to add that a subquel like this was most likely a one-time deal though she was inspired by works like Jean Rhys’ Wide Saragossa Sea. She spoke of the logistics of writing as well, saying that her previous book had thankfully done well and gave her the opportunity to work on this book full time and allow her to meet friends for coffee. From the earnings of her previous novel, she and her family had planned to live modestly for two years, and who knew what would happen until Longbourn was picked up and earned publicity along with a movie option. “I had been writing this really quietly with no book deal and no idea that it would get so much attention. Then my husband mentioned that it was the 100th anniversary,” and Ms. Baker had to pick up the pace considerably with the pressure on.
Baker’s book is not just about putting love and labor in the spotlight but subverting the canon. Her Longbourn is an eloquent deconstructionist creative work. Filled with lush sensory detail which Austen’s voice tends to lack, Ms. Baker has created a novel that not only goes hand in hand with Austen’s classic but also stands on its own.