In a quiet corner of a Lancaster coffee shop, Jo Baker breathed life into a novel that has taken the literary world by storm.
Longbourn – which gives us Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ quarters – has sold all over the world and the film rights have been snapped up by Focus Features.
This speciality films unit of Universal Pictures has an impressive portfolio which includes, interestingly, Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley in 2005.
The company is also responsible for Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, Atonement, Milk with Sean Penn and Hot Fuzz among very many others.
When I met Jo at Caffè Nero in Market Square where most of Longbourn was written, she told me: “Within a week of getting it out to publishers in January, it went America, UK, film rights, just like that.
“We’ve also sold in 14 different languages.”
“I don’t think I’ve really properly processed what’s going on.
“For the first part of the time when we were making those first sales and it was all very sudden, my agent would phone and tell me something and I would just start laughing.
“She’d say they’ve offered you such and such and all I could do was giggle. I couldn’t respond in any rational way to it and I also just had to get the book finished so I just get my head down and got on with the next thing.
“To get positive responses has been amazing. One of my publishers commented that these reviews were like we wrote them ourselves they’ve been so astonishing.”
Knowing now the success Longbourn has met with, it’s interesting to hear just how jittery Jo was about her fifth book.
“I was very very apprehensive about bringing this book out because there’s so much vested interest in Austen, so many people love her books and I do too but I was afraid I was going to get a hard time critically as well as generally,” she said.
“It’s a double-edged sword really because you get the associated interest but that can also be negative as well as positive interest.
“But because I was apprehensive I made a particular effort to make sure it was accurate historically, not that I wouldn’t normally, but even more so and that the story logic worked, the characters were active, dynamic and engaging.
“It made me raise my game I think having to be in dialogue with that other very famous book. It made me work hard.
“But for me the most thrilling part about it really was when I heard from my agent that Amanda Vickery, a historian of Regency England and a media figure, loved it. That was a massive relief.”
For Jo, who was born and grew up in Arkholme and whose own family was in service just two generations ago, writing Longbourn was a very personal experience.
“My grandma and her sisters were in service so I think reading Austen I always had this sense that I didn’t sort of belong in this world. It’s lovely to imagine yourself in Elizabeth Bennet’s shoes but in reality I wouldn’t have been wearing those shoes.
“It’s a real sort of heartfelt personal response to that other novel and it’s to do with class, money and opportunity and privilege and in some ways it’s to do with my family. At times, it’s an incredibly personal book even though it’s a book that’s in dialogue with another woman’s novel which was written 200 years ago.”
There’s also a little of Jo’s own childhood in Longbourn.
She spent many happy hours playing in the old vicarage at Arkholme, a house not unlike the home of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice, and says those details have stayed with her and leak into the novel.
Jo’s education began at the village primary school where there were just four of them in the year at that time.
She moved onto Queen Elizabeth School, Kirkby Lonsdale, then to college in Oxford followed by Belfast where she met her husband, the Irish playwright Daragh Carville.
The couple’s 10-year-old son was born in Belfast but Jo gave birth to her five-year-old daughter at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.
They moved back to the area seven years ago when Jo landed a job teaching creative writing at Lancaster University.
“It’s funny, I was away for a long time and now I’m back. It’s a good place to live and a good place to bring up children,” she said.
“One of the things I love about Lancaster is the colour. Belfast was red brick. A lot of northern towns are red brick but Lancaster is this gorgeous golden stone. I’ve always loved that, the Georgian architecture and the colour that it’s built in. Its so beautiful.
“Caffè Nero is my office, there’s a nice collegiate type of atmosphere here so this is a haunt and I do love the things that are specific to Lancaster – the Music Rooms, the Storey, Williamson Park – and recently my allotment on the Ridge. I call it my quiet place. I can go up there and it just calms me.”
Jo will be signing copies of Longbourn – released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice – at the Cornmarket branch of Waterstones, Lancaster, on Saturday September 21, at 11am.
by Debbie Butler