Monday, May 18, 2015
Jo Baker, Jane Austen and a catastrophic election
What makes people vote against their class? is a question I saw on Facebook today, the questioner evidently as downhearted as me about the recent UK general election, which right now I can't muster the energy to go into. Frances O'Grady, the leader of the trade union movement in Britain, warned last year’s TUC annual congress that Britain risks creating a "Downton Abbey-style" society in which social mobility has gone into reverse, with all official blame for the country's ills heaped on the vulnerable while the powerful and privileged sit pretty, and young people are converted into an army of casualised low-paid workers.
Frances O'Grady was referring to the television serial drama Downton Abbey depicting the early 20th century English upper class and their servants. The series came up last weekend at a Jane Austen event in Dublin. Eight of us from the Cork Jane Austen group travelled up, to hear Jo Baker speak about her novel Longbourn, the servants’ version of Pride and Prejudice. In questions afterwards, Downton Abbey was mentioned as a possible parallel. This Jo Baker roundly dismissed. The programme annoys her: everyone is happy in their place: no they're not, she insisted … and apologising for introducing politics (and drawing applause from the audience) lamented that the UK has now got another five years of it. By the way, you’ve heard of shy Tories, those who didn't admit when asked that they supported Cameron and skewed (so it seems) the opinion polls in the run-up to the UK election. Well I'm a shy Downton Abbey viewer, and I didn't admit this to Jo Baker when she signed my copy of Longbourn:-
A truly engaging person. From my own review of her book you'll see that I think it illuminates Pride and Prejudice in useful ways; and in Dublin Jo Baker herself illuminated Longbourn. A massive Jane Austen fan, she told how whilst re-reading Pride and Prejudice she got stuck on a particular line:-
“If there had not been a Netherfield ball to prepare for and talk of, the younger Miss Bennets would have been in a pitiable state at this time; for from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once. No aunt, no officers, no news could be sought after - the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” 
Who is Proxy she wondered, and how does Proxy feel about being sent in the rain and mud to get accessories for a ball she can't attend? Baker noted both presences and absences in Jane Austen’s novel. A meal was served … a carriage was brought round ... “but I'm not hearing anything about the person who did this thing”. Absent presences such as these reminded Baker of her own great aunts who were in domestic service, and prompted her to put pen to paper.
A nugget from her historical research for Longbourn. It seems that during the Napoleonic wars, where Pride and Prejudice is set, there was a massive premium on male labour, with all young able bodied men either in the fields, in the army or the navy. The government discouraged the employment of young men in inessential jobs by taxing it; which led to the unintended consequence that it became fashionable amongst the upper class to have young men standing around in white gloves serving soup, just to show they could afford it.
I'll leave you with a couple more thoughts on that election, a sore I can't help picking at. A business insider website has analysed the votes and concludes "You'll be surprised to learn that the general election was a huge win for the British left". Whilst I can hardly support the adjective "huge", I was marginally less gloomy, perhaps wrongly so, after I came across this. Finally I do hope the Labour party doesn't in it's coming leadership election attempt to shuffle towards the ever rightward drifting so-called centre ground; though I fear it will. Read this selection of Guardian readers letters for a flavour of the debate.
 Pride and Prejudice vol 1, ch 18