A sister played a more important role than a romantic hero in Jane Austen’s own life; Cassandra was her lifelong confidante, and literary consultant, and after Jane’s death took charge of her reputation and legacy even to the extent of burning many of her sister’s letters. Perhaps because of this special relationship, sisters are of supreme importance in the lives of Austen’s heroines. All six of her completed novels deal with what Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park considered a young girl’s ‘most interesting time of life’ – the short period when she has the possibility, or in many cases the necessity, of finding a husband – interesting hopes and dreams which may or may not be shared with a bosom companion. When Cassandra’s intended husband died tragically, she gave up any further romantic expectation and turned to the younger Jane for this companionship.
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park the absence of their father allows the Bertram sisters to fulfil all the fears he entertained about their possible misconduct, as they fall into rivalry, flirtation and finally disgrace. In Joan Aiken’s sequel, it is the more loving Price sisters, Fanny and Susan, daughters of a less fortunate sister of Lady Bertram who are the heroines, and Susan, the younger, is left more or less in charge of matters at Mansfield Park when the older Fanny, now married to Edmund has gone abroad with him to look after the family’s affairs. Bereft, and left at the mercy of mean spirited Julia Bertram, playing the role of her wicked ‘step-sister’, Susan is adopted as companion by the mysterious Mary Crawford, the dangerous heartbreaker of the original Austen novel, whose intervention and encouragement allow romance to blossom for Susan in this imagined sequel.
Joan Aiken’s passion for, and knowledge of the life and works of Jane Austen was shared by her own sister, Jane Aiken Hodge, a historical novelist, who also wrote a biography of Jane Austen. The two Aiken sisters shared the early drafts of their novels with each other throughout their writing lives, and benefited from coming from a family of readers and writers who enjoyed communicating their literary passions just as the Austen family members had done.
Joan went on to write six novels in this series which she described as ‘Austen Entertainments’, and for those who know their Austen they are extremely entertaining – readers will enjoy not just the coming of age, and ‘interesting time of life’ and romances of the younger sisters introduced in the original novels, but a wealth of tongue in cheek references to characters in the earlier works, and to incidents from Jane’s own life which demonstrate Joan Aiken’s love for and delight in the world of Jane Austen.
Perhaps one of the most poignant references is Joan Aiken’s description of the “arrangement of three chairs” on which the ailing Mary Crawford is found resting in her garden. In a letter, a niece of Jane Austen’s described how when Mrs Austen ( a possible model for the constantly suffering Lady Bertram?) is in possession of the sofa, the seriously unwell but self denying daughter Jane “laid upon 3 chairs which she arranged for herself.” With this parallel in mind it is interesting to speculate about other similarities Joan Aiken draws between Jane Austen and her heroine Mary Crawford, perhaps seeing her as an imagined alter-ego who she endows with all sorts of cheerfully witty and ‘wicked’ qualities that she may have shared herself, but which after her death, Jane’s more concerned sister Cassandra sought to suppress and conceal. Jane Austen may well have had adventures of her own, at her own ‘interesting time of life’, but deprived of many letters about her own life, the closest we can come to an understanding of how important these other relationships may have been to Jane, is through the intimate conversations of the sisters in her novels.
Joan Aiken’s Mansfield Revisited, a sequel to Austen’s Mansfield Park is published in a delightful little hardback volume on November 7th,
a companion volume to Lady Catherine’s Necklace – a continuation of Pride and Prejudice which was re-issued last year.