Did you know Joan Aiken wrote Austen sequels? One of the greatest Jane Austen enthusiasts, she knew the books inside out and has written six wonderful novels of her own as a tribute to her ‘admir’d predecessor’…
In this New York Times review, Lizzie Skurnick tells all – spoilers abound, but they will whet the appetite too!
Read the full article here:
“If there can be one incontestable criticism of Jane Austen, it is that she leaves too many juicy stories untold. Scattered through her works are secrets for which we never get answers. Who, for instance, was the mother of Emma’s passion project, Harriet Smith? What becomes of Willoughby and Eliza’s infant in “Sense and Sensibility”? Whom does Anne de Bourgh marry after Lizzy Bennet snatches her putative fiancé out from under her nose? Does Fanny Price’s sister Susan, who emerges late in the novel, flourish at Mansfield Park — and what really passed between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill at Weymouth in “Emma”?
Joan Aiken, in five companion novels to Jane Austen’s works (she also completed the Austen fragment “The Watsons”), never tells who the flighty Miss Smith had for a mother. But in her expansive set of prequels, concurrent fictions and sequels, published between 1984 and 2000, she is particularly adept at picking out the characters one would wonder about most, and writes them so well as almost to make Austen seem remiss for telling us only one side of the story.
Aiken, who died in 2004, is the author of more than 100 books for children and adults, most notably the clever and fantastical Wolves series, in which a threesome of children triumph over adults and lupines in a Stuart-ruled, steampunk England. (You really had to be there.) In the annals of “Austen Entertainments,” as she called them, she rules supreme as the only unabashed fan and creative peer. Her companion works display both affection and gentle admonition, and are sometimes as hard on Austen’s heroines as Austen could be on their associates. (Janeites, prepare for a bitter, disillusioned Edward Ferrars, and a Jane Fairfax who wears Churchill’s ring like a “penitential chain.”)
Aiken’s “Mansfield Park Revisited” and “Jane Fairfax” are so seamlessly aligned with the originals as almost to read like spoilers. (Spoiler alert!) The first follows Fanny Price’s sister Susan, who has taken Fanny’s place at Lady Bertram’s side. It is four years later, but Aiken has no leisurely sisterly interlude in mind. With great dispatch, she sends Fanny and Edmund to Antigua, kills off Sir Tom and Mrs. Norris, and installs a sickly Mary Crawford in Mrs. Norris’s now vacant home.
Aiken’s aim, however, is not to upend plot, but motivation. Mary’s coquetry, which was so vexing to Edmund and Fanny in “Mansfield Park,” here redeems her. After Mary acknowledges using it on Tom Bertram for practice, “Susan was fascinated, almost frightened, almost repelled.… It was like witnessing the final stages of a conflagration in some great mansion, when the flames, which the firemen had thought extinguished, suddenly leap out of an upper window with terrifying power to annihilate all within their reach.” What Susan does not yet know is that Mary flirted with Tom to awaken his feelings for Susan. In Aiken’s world, Susan can acknowledge the danger of Mary’s powers without preventing their ability to do good.
Jane Fairfax also proves a wily character, unwilling to remain within the tame confines in which “Emma” places her. This Jane pities Frank Churchill, who tries hard to make everyone like him, and, unlike her, grew up with unloving guardians. In Weymouth, we learn Matt Dixon is indeed in love with Jane, and she with him. Her acceptance of Frank is slow in coming — her other choice is Mr. Knightley — and the great achievement of the book is not to let the lovers find each other, but to have Jane and Emma learn they should have been friends.
These first two books hew closely to Austen’s familiar devices: the poor relation; the dashing, dangerous suitor; romantic rainstorms; exotic brother-sister pairings; and group outings to Roman ruins. “Eliza’s Daughter,” the rollicking story of Willoughby and Eliza’s offspring, and “Lady Catherine’s Necklace,” a mystery about paternity and jewelry, explode them completely.
In “Eliza’s Daughter,” the neglected relation is an orphan raised in a house where a child is sold to Gypsies; the dashing suitor sets up Eliza for a (narrowly averted) gang rape; and the minor rainstorm is a flood that destroys a town. Elinor Dashwood, now the put-upon wife of a miserly Edward Ferrars, becomes a famous novelist. As the novel ends, Eliza inherits — as a single mother. And those of you who always felt Marianne Dashwood might grow up to be a spiteful jerk: Your prayers are richly answered.
“Lady Catherine’s Necklace” allows us a closer look at a character we didn’t even know we missed: Anne de Bourgh. Anne, it turns out, is neither boring nor sickly, nor is the familial line of Lady de Bourgh as spotless as she thinks. You can’t hide the amount of noodling in these books by doing your best Austen — Lady Catherine is seemingly kidnapped, and left in a cell slowly filling with water — and Aiken doesn’t try to. These two sequels are pure celebration, the cover songs of a fellow artist.
With only a tenuous connection to “Mansfield Park” (Aiken took that on twice; she didn’t get around to “Persuasion” or “Northanger Abbey”), “The Youngest Miss Ward” follows Harriet Ward (not Harriet Smith, alas!), who is sent to her uncle’s family in Portsmouth to save expenses as her bedridden mother weakens. Hatty is a poet, housewife and governess in training, underappreciated, like many an Austen heroine, by the small-minded, and championed by the powerful. Her story reveals Aiken’s knowledge of everything from Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) to redemption agreements to the making of rag rugs — with a series of charming, original poems to boot. Like the best of Austen, it is rich with penetrating dialogue and subtle displays of erudition, and we see how fully this modern author can take the reader beyond the confines of Emma’s Box Hill.
And there lies the eternal conundrum: Is Austen’s restraint, her reliance on the same set of devices, a comment on the few roles available to women, or a limitation of the author herself? Critics always have to make the case that Austen was radical. (See this year’s “Jane Austen: The Secret Radical,” by Helena Kelly.) Is Austen’s passing attention to Antigua and tenant farming, they ask, an act of courage, or proof of blithe indifference? Is she insufficiently attentive, as a book like Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” suggests, to those below stairs, or is it miraculous that we see them at all? It doesn’t help matters that some Austen museums are about as literary as an American Girl store — tea-party option included — or that we don Austen’s plots as breezily as a Lizzy Bennet bonnet. (Despite “Shamela,” we are not likely to see “Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded and Zombies” on the shelves anytime soon.)
Aiken’s work acknowledges rather than answers the question. In “Mansfield Park,” when Mary Crawford praises the “heroism, danger, bustle, fashion” of the navy over the quiet life of a cleric, she may as well have spit on the Bible. (Or on Edmund.) But Aiken’s characters are free to be dangerous sailors, heroines at the firm center of the action, wearing such fashions as necessary.
They are also free to be explicitly radical. In “Jane Fairfax,” the title character notices that no one in Highbury asks her about her time in the West Indies, and in “Mansfield Park Revisited,” Susan Price corrects Julia’s husband on a point about the slave trade. In “Eliza’s Daughter,” Eliza wonders at her lack of opportunity (“By the holy mistletoe… women lead miserable, driven lives”). Helena Kelly has to remind the reader that Austen’s novels take place in the context of Napoleon’s conquests; Aiken’s Eliza wanders over a war-ravaged Portugal, fighting off evildoers with a knife concealed in her boot.
But this doesn’t mean Aiken’s works imply that Austen’s heroines are not courageous enough — or that Austen lacks some crucial perspective. These works aren’t meant to challenge Austen, but to challenge us as readers. By interposing her own stories among Austen’s, changing heroines and making mischief, Aiken forces us to see what Austen made her own heroines see: themselves from another perspective. Knowing that a young Emma was a bully to Jane, or that Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter, Anne, was privately an inquisitive, liberated person, does not conflict with the characters; it complements them. Aiken’s tributes don’t so much enlarge Austen’s world as they allow us to see how large that world is.”
Article by Lizzie Skurnick
Founding editor of the young adult imprint Lizzie Skurnick Books
and the author of “Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading.”
Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops stories famously illustrated by Jan Pienkowski have been bedtime reading favourites for years. In this story – A Bed for the Night – four travelling musicians with wonderfully tongue in cheek names are wandering in search of a home:
In classic fable format, the friends ask various animals and people they meet if they can offer them a bed for the night, but everyone turns them down…
Finally they meet an old lady, who has a house like Baba Yaga’s – standing on its one chicken leg – which has just laid an egg!
But this time the story ends happily, although not in the way we expect – the brothers hunt for the egg and bring it back, but by the time they do it has cracked – it’s hatching, into another one legged house, and so the old lady rather crossly gives it to them – because now she can’t boil it for her supper…
So now they have a little chicken-leg house of their own!
Nearly fifty years ago Joan Aiken was asked to write a letter to children for International Children’s Book Day.
Here it is. I’m sure she’d say much the same thing today.
“If you were going to sail round the world alone in a small boat, and could take only one of these things to amuse you, which would you choose? A big iced cake, a beautiful picture, a book, a pack of cards, a paint box (and paper!) a pair of knitting needles and wool, a musical box, or a mouth organ…?
It would be a hard choice. Myself, I wouldn’t want the cake. I’d eat it too fast. Nor the cards, they might blow away. Nor the wool, it might just get wet. The mouth organ would be better than the musical box, as you could make up your own tunes. I wouldn’t take the picture – I could look at the sea. Nor the paint box, because in the end I’d use up all the paper. So the last choice would be between the mouth organ and the book. And I’m pretty sure I’d choose the book.
One book! I can hear someone say. But if you were sailing round the world, you’d have read it hundred times before the trip was over. You’d know it by heart.
And I’d answer yes, I might read it a hundred times, yes, I might know it by heart. That wouldn’t matter. You don’t refuse to see your friend, or your mother, or your brother, because you have met them before.
A book you love is like a friend.
It is like home. You meet your friend a hundred times. On the hundred-and-first meeting you can still say, “Well, I never realized you knew that!’ ”
There is always something new to find in a book, however often you read it.
When you read a story you do something that only man can do – you step out of your mind into someone else’s. You are listening to the thoughts of another person and making your own mind work – the most interesting thing there is to do!
So I’d sit in my boat and read my book over and over. First I’d think about the people in the story, why they acted the way they did. Then I’d think about the words the writer used, why he chose them. Then I’d wonder why he wrote the story and how I’d have done it, if I’d written it. Then I might carry on the story in my mind, after the end of the book. Then I’d go back and read all my favourite bits and wonder why I liked them best. Then I’d read all the other bits and look for things that I hadn’t noticed before. Then I might make a list of the things I’d learned from the book. Then I’d try to imagine what the writer was like, from the way he’d written his story…
It would be like having another person in the boat. A book you love is like a friend, something of your very own, for no two people read the same book in quite the same way.
“If every single person in the world had a book – just one book – we’d have a lot less trouble.”
How shall we start?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From the age of five until her eightieth year Joan wrote stories. Whether you like myths, magic, fantasy, history, adventure or romance there are stories here for everyone! This is her website BOOKS PAGE do come and explore…
Family anniversaries spark memories, but they can also open chasms back into the past; although birthdays may be celebrated, they can also become haunted by the deaths of those remembered…
While I was reading some old letters about the life of my Grandmother Jessie, Joan Aiken’s beloved mother, whose birthday falls on the first of March, I discovered a series of strange coincidences, which told stories of their own, weaving our family history into memorable new patterns.
The First of March is a day I like to celebrate every year. It’s a day usually marked with daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower with a bright and glowing colour that suited Jessie, but March primroses and cowslips would have been her preference, as they grew plentifully in her garden and wild on the Sussex Downs in the countryside where she and Joan lived and walked.
Jessie died a day or so before her birthday in 1970, when she would have been eighty-one. That year she didn’t stay for the first of March; she knew how ill she was, she had resigned herself to going, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary, in the early hours of the 27th of February, having waited only for the return of her daughter Joan.
Joan had been in Savannah Georgia, in America, visiting her father Conrad Aiken – Jessie’s first love, separated but never forgotten, painfully divorced by Jessie after the agonising discovery of his constant infidelity, more than forty years earlier, when Joan was just four. Always able to draw the attention of the family, Conrad was himself in hospital, and Joan had to divide her attention between two dying parents one on either side of the Atlantic. She had to go, should she take a message? Yes, said Jessie, ‘Give him my love.’
Jessie first met her American poet husband when they were students at Harvard in the spring of 1911. They had been married very young, and the marriage, which produced three children, lasted only for about fifteen turbulent years; when they parted they never met or spoke again. Joan grew up with her Canadian mother in England, but gradually over the years she went to meet and came to know her American father again. Now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex; she was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, he knew she was ill, and was asking about her, and he also when asked, sent a message of love.
Describing her visit to Conrad on the night of her return to Sussex, Joan related a dream of her father’s; he often had extraordinary dreams and liked to share them. He was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them, and force them into a dory, and row them out to a larger ship anchored further out in the harbour.
‘What kind of birds?’ ‘Kearsages,’ he answered. Joan had never heard of such birds.
And when he had with some difficulty carried the birds up the steep companion-way to the deck of the ship, he noticed far away on the shore that there was someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said
Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love, and the story of the dream to Jessie. Conrad lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time they were together; Jessie died later that night, in the early hours of the 27th of February.
Curiously the 27th of February was also the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron. The father of her children, he was quite a bit older; he was born in 1911 at about the same time, and in the very year when her parents were falling in love in a Boston spring, but he died of cancer in his forties in 1955, leaving Joan widowed, in her twenties with two small children. For us children his death was a more important date, the tragic change it made to our family was sadly more memorable than his birthday; this year I even had to look up an old passport to check the date. I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, was that why the date seemed rather elusive? But looking through some letters and papers to confirm the date I came across another piece of family history from that exact same date, that I am sure I was unaware of until now.
I discovered that the 27th of February, even longer ago, in 1901 had been a day of even more memorable family tragedy; this was the day when Conrad’s own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to their eleven year old son to close the door into the nursery where he had found them, leaving his younger brothers and sister in the care of their maid, and going down the street by himself to report this unthinkable story to the police.
Conrad Aiken mourned the loss of his beloved mother all his life. Finding his parents dead, he wrote, he ‘felt possessed of them forever.’ He also wondered throughout his adult life, if his constant infidelities, which destroyed two marriages and caused the break up of his own children’s family, had really been a search for the long lost mother who he had idealised, resented, and mourned ever afterwards… His most potent early memory was of her reading to him, sitting on the nursery floor, which was to be overlaid by the second memory he could not erase. At the end of his life he returned to Savannah, and lived in the house next door to the one which was the scene of his childhood tragedy.
These are lines he wrote about that return, they come from his last poem:
“Death is a toy upon the nursery floor, broken we know that it can hurt no more
and birth, much farther back, begins to seem
like that recurring and delicious dream.
Dream, or a vision, we could not stay and it is lost.
How can old age receive such Pentecost?”
How strange that there should be a second death, another final loss, on the very same date, of another wife, another mother, his long lost love, the mother of his children, made unattainable because of unstoppable human folly, and mourned for many years, and whose absence could only be bridged by the visits and stories of their writer daughter.
A year or so after both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting. She called it The Watcher on the Shore.