Jo Baker imagines what life was like for the servants in Pride and Prejudice

The seed for Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn, which tells the story of the servants in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and beyond, was a phrase used in the lead-up to the Netherfield ball – ‘the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy’ – prompting Baker to wonder just who this ‘proxy’ was who had to head out in awful weather to find delicate adornment for the Bennett girls’ feet.

Such a question though had earlier seeding, too – in Baker’s own family background in service. She told her Belfast audience at the most recent Literary Lunchtime event at the Ulster Hall in September that her family home in England was full of random objects given as presents to relatives, by the ladies of the big houses they had worked in.

In the book’s appendix, Baker describes the old Georgian country house that backed onto her childhood home and that stayed, as such things tend to, vividly in memory, with its ‘necessary house’, the outside privy, a big, echoing kitchen and a sunlit stable loft. These become the geography of Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice the Servants' Story (to give it its full title), the fruit of all of these imaginative antecedents.

Baker – who studied for an MA in Irish Writing at Queen's University, having graduated from Oxford, and who is married to the Northern Irish playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville – describes the book as a ‘subquel’ rather than either prequel or sequel, and never has the notion of subtext been more interesting in a book. The servants themselves are implied but not explicitly stated in every action of the original novel.

Every message received or delivered implies that someone takes or delivers it. Every pot of tea ordered requires someone to make it and serve it. Every roaring fire in a dark drawing room in winter has required someone to venture out into the murk for logs, to build a fire and to light them.

But it is in the original Latin meaning of subtext – sub-texla, meaning the threads that run under a woven piece of cloth – that Baker has the most fun.

The book opens with an extraordinary description of an ordinary washday at Longbourn. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen described outfits for their prettiness, sometimes for their make-do-and-mend qualities, and feminist criticism often read Elizabeth’s propensity for walking in the muck and rain as a sign of her claiming the male space, of her agency.

Here, however, the sullied clothes become simply something someone else must clean. ‘If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.’ Washday starts at 4.30 in the morning in the dark, cold, stillness of the night.

Water must be slopped to giant coppers in pails, clothes must be boiled with water and soap, and stubborn stains soaked in lye and rubbed on washboards. The women below stairs wash everything – including the menstrual rags of the Bennett women. Every conceivable stain is faced.

None is more 'frail, leaking, forked' than Miss Lydia, or course, who comes back from Brighton as Mrs Wickham, her marriage hurriedly managed for a small fortune to disguise her disgrace at the bounder Wickham’s hands. When she returns it is Mrs Hill the housekeeper who must wash the stains of that disgrace: ‘blood and sweat and spunk and travel dust'.

Just as Mrs Hill tries not to inhale the odours of Mrs Wickham's misadventures, so the servants Polly and Sarah carry chamber pots downstairs, holding them at arm’s length the better not to have a sense of the ‘slopping thunk of solids’ floating in them.

Baker’s licence for such visceral intimacy comes both from the book’s language, which is modern, but also from the fact that the downstairs world, by virtue of what it had to see and deal with, perhaps had few of the repressive sexual attitudes of that upstairs.

Baker’s servants know things, too. They know that Mary would be a better match for Mr Collins. They see how the Bennett’s marriage works. And yet, despite knowing the angels to have feet of clay, there is still a sense at times of the upstairs life as a kind of heaven peopled by gods – particularly when Darcey and Bingley come into it. But the lower regions are the real world, the earth of aches and pains and sleep that is deep and dreamless with exhaustion.

One of the book’s most interesting subversions is in how the characters of Elizabeth and Mr Bennett are handled. The original novel invites a position of superior sneering at Mrs Bennett, which modern readers might find uncomfortable, while the father/daughter relationship is like that of Thomas More and his daughter, his Margaret Roper. They put up with and work patronisingly around the inferior intellect of the mother – for comic purposes in Pride and Prejudice.

Baker allows no saintly superiority around these characters, however, who are shown by times to be just as self-centred and thoughtless in relation to their servants as anyone else. The back story to the Bennett’s marriage provides a deliciously tantalising plot-turn, for example, which gives a whole new meaning to Mr Bennett’s retreats to the library.

Baker comes to this as a lover of Austen, admitting in her Belfast reading that she has now recovered the memory of her first exposure to Austen when a young school friend named Emma explained the origin of her name. They were 12-years-old, and Baker has been re-reading Austen's novels ever since.

Those of us who have followed her work since the publication of her first novel, Offcomer, have seen it grow in strength and confidence through the wonderful The Telling and the extraordinary The Picture Book. Baker's great gift for nuanced storytelling across years and generations that marked that book is here in the most audacious part of Longbourn, which I’ve not commented on so as not to spoil its fabulous unravelling.

I once asked a young English teacher who had taught in one of Reverend Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian schools what texts could possibly be allowed to be taught that would pass his narrow definition of 'suitable literature'. The answer was Jane Austen.

For such people – and many who I suspect read Austen because they wish life could still be as prim as a Georgian tea party – and precisely because Austen rarely looks on life’s ugliness or earthiness straight on, Longbourn may prove rather strong liquor.

For those of us who preferred the Brontes, Longbourn reminds us why – since what is here is what was missing from the original. For real Austen fans this novel will be sheer joy, and it would be a lovely winter treat to actually read them side-by- side, moving between them as the new novel’s chapters have been so mapped on to the older text. A treat of a book.

Longbourn is out now, published by Doubleday.