In a piece written for the Jane Austen Society called Grim Evenings with Jane Austen, Joan Aiken writes:
“There is a widespread misapprehension among many people that Jane Austen’s novels are a genteel feast of sweet ladylikeness and innocent merriment. But of course it wasn’t like that at all. Not at the time.”
“Jane Austen knows and describes as few other writers have done with such intensity, the suffocating dullness, the deadly monotony, the sense of entrapment that comes from living in a small country place with no means of escape. From an early age she had referred to this predicament, sometimes jokingly – ‘Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted solely of your Mother.’ she wrote in an early pastiche Love and Freindship at the age of about fifteen, but in fact for well bred ladies of the period this was no joke.”
When Austen first began her story, the fragment known as The Watsons, the subject matter may have been too close to Jane Austen’s own situation for her to continue it with any possibility of lightening the mood – sisters about to lose their father, and their home, with no possibility of improving their future circumstances, even in Jane’s case, by inventing imaginary happy endings.
Even in her six novels, Joan Aiken wrote, gloom, solitude and monotony are the daily diet of Austen’s heroines, which is why they so easily fall prey to cosmopolitan interlopers like Henry Crawford, Wickham, Willoughby and Mr. Elliot.
So in sisterly fashion, Joan Aiken decides to rescue Austen’s heroine, in this case Emma Watson, and by using her own powers of writerly imagination, to create a more engaging outcome which may or may not accord with the expectations of Janeites…
“A common mistake made by readers about writers is to imagine that each of their works reflects their emotional progress…but Austen’s work, at first done for fun, and to entertain her family, became, later, something very different, the main function of her life and, perhaps an assuagement for a feeling of emptiness.”
So if Joan Aiken takes a few liberties with her ‘Jane Austen Entertainments’ such as her completion of The Watsons it seems only proper to see it as an exercise in the spirit of sisterly sympathy – to allow a more cheerful outcome for Jane and her heroine.
For as she reminds us:
“For Jane Austen herself it ended very badly; she lost her lover, she died, after a lot of pain, away from her beloved village home, and bitterly disappointed that her mother had not been better provided for.”
So for those who would like to give one Jane Austen heroine a very happy ending (no spoilers here, and you will never guess!) despite all dreadful expectations to the contrary – welcome to Joan Aiken’s completion of Emma Watson…!
Out today in a brand new paperback:
Copyright of ‘Unseen Jane Austen Portrait’ Dr.Paula Byrne