Joan Aiken celebrates Jane Austen, writing the stories she never told…

Much to their surprise, Jane Austen fans are still discovering that Joan Aiken wrote Austen sequels – one of the greatest admirers of Jane Austen, 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 entertaining review and summary, an Aiken admirer tells all – spoilers abound, but they will whet the appetite too!

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.

Lizzie Skurnick is the founding editor of the young adult imprint Lizzie Skurnick Books and the author of “Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading.”

Six Austen covers.png

At Joan Aiken.com find all the UK and US editions of the Aiken ‘Austen Entertainments’

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A fatal flaw makes a memorable heroine…

Stranger Old & New

…especially for the hero in this case – this girl is unforgettable!

 Juliana Paget, heroine of the first of Joan Aiken’s three Paget Family novels might well be just another Regency Miss with the usual romantic hopes of meeting the man of her dreams. But for Juliana her intended beau must of course resemble King Charles the First, whose looks and character she has come to admire as the heroic subject of the Biography she has been assisting her father to write.

( And aside from this undoubted handicap,  romance for Juliana will also be hindered, as we discover,  by another dreadful fault, or maybe two…)

A perfect heroine, like a fairytale princess, is a rather predictable copybook case, sure to meet her prince, let alone obviously recognise him at first sight. Not so a Joan Aiken heroine – she is likely to have ideas of her own – or in this case ones she has gleaned from reading too many books, like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey – and these ideas will certainly lead her into all kinds of trouble.

What if her romantic expectations deceive her and she doesn’t know who’s friend or foe?

When our heroine, no shrinking violet,  has rescued a stranger fleeing from French revolutionaries and is then being rescued right back by him, and borne away to safety in a hot air balloon, he naturally enough tries to clasp her in his arms.

But while she has been helpfully mending one of the tapestries he is carrying over the channel to the Prince Regent at Brighton – for naturally ‘she carried a housewife full of needles and thread in her reticule and hated to be idle’  – she has inadvertently mislaid a spare needle…

‘ He let out a most appalling oath, fortunately in Dutch.’

“Oh what is it?” cried Juliana, terrified. “Is something broken?”

“No,” he growled. “You have stuck your verdommte bodkin into the side of the basket, and it has run very nearly right through my thumb!”

“Oh I am sorry!” she exclaimed repentantly. “It is a dreadful fault that I have, I know! I am always sticking my needle into the arms of chairs…Papa has scolded me for it, times out of mind.”

And does she learn from her mistake?  Of course not. Joan Aiken is able to use this as a handy plot twist a couple more times, so that when the proposal scene finally arrives, and we are obviously expecting the hero to go down on one knee – does he?

Absolutely not, as he understandably says:

” It’s odds but you’ve left a needle sticking somewhere in that grass!”

And is he the one who looks exactly like King Charles the First?

You’ll have to read it and find out…!

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The Smile of the Stranger is the first a series of Joan Aiken historical Romances

Just published on Kindle by Bello at Macmillan

Read more about Joan Aiken’s rip roaring period novels here

And see the whole new series here

A Joan Aiken ABC – An Aiken Book Bonanza for Completists!

Paget NovelsAll of Joan Aiken’s historical novels, whether Regency Romp, Gothic Melodrama or Austen Entertainments (or sometimes a mixture of all three!) are being brought out as E- Books this week, so if your well thumbed copies are falling apart, or you want to find a long lost favourite or discover a whole new world of  ‘Joan Aiken for Grown-ups’ – now is the moment to stock up your Kindle for the Summer!

The three books above, known as the Paget family novels are all partly set in Joan Aiken’s own home, the (unsurprisingly!) haunted Hermitage, in Petworth Sussex where she spent the last years of her life. But the Paget women are great travellers; the first novel is set at the time of the French revolution in the 1790’s, with a hazardous escape – by balloon! and the last is set partly in Brussels and the salons of Paris in about 1860. The second covers a fantastic journey from northern India all the way back to England; all make use of historical events and characters of the time – back in the small Sussex town we meet the 3rd Earl of Egremont, owner of Petworth House, and of course the Prince Regent on a visit from his Pavilion in Brighton…

Between them, this loosely related series, and Joan Aiken’s other period novels, draw on the innovative literary and historical style of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, when Mrs Radcliffe was inventing the Gothic Romance with The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Jane Austen, who read her predecessor avidly, produced her own Gothic parody with Northanger Abbey, and proceeded to create a new style of ‘romantic’ novel that has been a model for female authors ever since. In her styles and settings, Joan Aiken goes on to encompass the rest of the nineteenth century –  an extremely fertile period for the development of the novel that takes us through the Brontes and Dickens, from more Gothic to more urban settings, and then on to the sensational novels like Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White, right up to the ghostly tales and grand  international romances of Henry James.

It is hard to pin down Joan Aiken’s style, she revels in Gothic Romance, with romance in the sense of finding beauty and adventure even in the everyday, and Gothic in her use of mystery and suspense and fantastic settings, but also with a keen eye for period style and historical detail, and always with a strong and sometimes humorous or parodic critique of the role of the heroine, in the novel and in society. Add to that an understanding of literary tradition, and usually a well-read heroine, who is sometimes a writer herself, and some pacey dialogue, eccentric characters, and a thoroughly modern interpretation of relationships (and sometimes a touch of terror!) and you begin to get the picture…

Five Min Barebane Deception

‘Regency’ has also become a pretty wide ranging category, more or less invented by the prolific Georgette Heyer, who also took Jane Austen as an early model, but which has come to mean a comedy of manners in a period setting rather than a full on Romance. These next three novels go from the very Heyerish Five Minute Marriage  (with elements of Dickensian London) to full on Gothic Horror in the style of Mrs Radcliffe or Sir Walter Scott with her Castle Barebane, and finally a moving family saga and high drama set in a remote Northumbrian mansion.

Joan Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’ as she called them take up the stories of some of Austen’s lesser characters or younger sisters, one of the Ward sisters from Mansfield Park for instance, to give them their own stories – in this case a reversal of Austen’s plot – rich girl goes to live with poor relations! In another she completes The Watsons one of Austen’s own unfinished fragments with Emma Watson.  Austen was Aiken’s most admired literary predecessor, and though the adventures of the Aiken heroines may be a trifle wilder, and she allows them an independence that Austen could not, there is nothing that a young Jane Austen – author of some fairly tongue-in-cheek parodies herself – might not enjoy!

Bello Austen Entertainments

It is delightful to see all these novels becoming available again, a hugely important part of  Joan Aiken’s literary career, whether for old Aiken aficionados, or new readers moving on from the Willoughby Chase series or her other children’s works, who never dreamed that these gripping and eminently readable titles even existed. Find out much more about all of them on the Joan Aiken website – and welcome to the Aiken ABC!

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Find Period Novels here,  and Austen Entertainments here

And all of them on the Joan Aiken Amazon Page and the Macmillan website

(and here’s an idea of what NOT to expect…!)

https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/its-a-joan-aiken-novel-what-did-you-expect/

Jane Austen, Joan Aiken and Jane Fairfax – Secrets at the Seaside…

Weymouth

The seaside resort of Weymouth, was, according to Jane Austen:

” Altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind…” 

Writing to her sister Cassandra she was partly joking, but clearly the resort, then frequented by King George III, his brother the Duke of Gloucester and their fashionable circle, was seen as rather a racy location, ‘a gay bathing place’, like Brighton where Lydia comes to grief in Pride and Prejudice. In fact it becomes almost a metaphor in Austen’s writing; when characters from her novels are talked of as having visited Weymouth it is usually to some ill effect, and the novels themselves never actually go there..!

Joan Aiken however finds the town irresistible, and in her Jane Fairfax, a companion novel to Austen’s Emma we at last  get to visit this exciting seaside resort, and discover what  happens in Weymouth…

We learn from Austen’s novel that Jane Fairfax has stayed there and met not only with the mysterious Matt Dixon – about her relationship with whom there is much speculation in Emma’s village of Highbury,  but also another powerful object of Emma’s interest – Frank Churchill.

It is obviously the perfect place for meetings and even dissipation, as Emma’s mentor and arbiter of good taste, Mr Knightley, remarks about Frank Churchill’s extended visit there:

 ‘’He cannot want money – he cannot want leisure. We know, on the contrary, that he has so much of both, that he is glad to get rid of them at the idlest haunts in the kingdom.”

And then, Emma hears, regarding Jane Fairfax and her conduct, there is worse:

“You may well be amazed. But it is even so. There has been a solemn engagement between them ever since October—formed at Weymouth, and kept a secret from every body.”

This revelation obviously whetted Joan Aiken’s imagination – how could this apparently restrained and modest character, the simply brought up, orphaned Jane Fairfax, who is destined through lack of fortune to become a governess, ever have entered into a romantic situation which, if discovered could have ruined her?

Was it the atmosphere of liberation, the meeting of young people perhaps less supervised than usual and in high spirits, that could make these more passionate situations possible..?

A young lady’s head might easily be turned in the company of new people, with boating excursions, picnics, and assemblies in seaside ballrooms like those Jane Austen herself had experienced at nearby Sidmouth.

As she wrote to Cassandra about one Ball:

“My Mother and I stayed about an hour later…and had I chosen to stay longer I might have danced with Mr Granville…or with a new odd-looking Man who had been eyeing me for some time, and at last without any introduction asked me if I meant to dance again. I think he must be Irish by his ease…”

Irish…as was Jane Fairfax’s mysterious new friend Matt Dixon, and also Jane Austen’s  early romantic interest, Tom Lefroy.

A description of the Sidmouth ballroom gives the impression – and Jane Austen mentions she was there on the night of a full moon – of floating between sea and sky as seen through the tall Georgian windows, romantic indeed, and enough to make any girl lose her head.

Joan Aiken was well researched in Austen’s historical background and her novels, and may have seen a parallel here; of a young girl tempted by romantic yearnings and hopes of a fortune that would not otherwise have been within her reach. In Aiken’s imagined story of Jane Fairfax there may well have been more than one temptation to escape a life of drudgery and penury.

Lizzie Skurnick in the New Yorker writes about Joan Aiken’s development and re-working of Austen’s novels, as one of the first to attempt these ‘Austen sequels’:

Joan Aiken, in five companion novels to Jane Austen’s works writes them so well as almost to make Austen seem remiss for telling us only one side of the story.

What really passed between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill at Weymouth in “Emma”?  In Aiken’s world, Jane Fairfax proves a wily character, unwilling to remain within the tame confines in which “Emma” places her. In Weymouth, we learn Matt Dixon is indeed in love with Jane, and she with him.

Jane Fairfax, in Aiken’s interpretation, like Austen’s heroine Emma, does not immediately understand her own heart, and takes a while to reflect on her experiences, before finally realising that there may be a truer ‘unromantic’ reality to love and marriage – and what it really means to find and accept a partner for life.

Skurnick continues:

Jane’s acceptance of Frank is slow in coming —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.

The two young women are rational and thoughtful creatures, even with the odd romantic yearning or susceptibility, and could well have been friends if they had not been set up in competition with each other by the confines and expectations of their society.

However there is a very nice touch at the end of Emma where Austen offers her heroine at least one excursion away from her rather claustrophobic village of Highbury:

Emma and Mr. Knightley… had determined that their marriage ought to be concluded while John and Isabella were still at Hartfield, to allow them the fortnight’s absence in a tour to the seaside…

Jane Austen loved the seaside, much has been written about her love of  bathing and enjoyment of the healing properties of the sea air, and perhaps also the sense of freedom it offered? One of the most touching pictures of her, drawn by Cassandra shows her sitting  looking out to sea, but her thoughts, like her face, are hidden.

C.A. .JA Sketch

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Joan Aiken’s companion novel to Austen’s Emma  – the secret life of its second heroine –

 Now available in a  Kindle edition

New Jane fAIRFAX

“I felt like I was reading Emma for the first time, even though it is one of my most beloved books over the decades, frequently re-read.  As Booklist said, ‘extraordinarily well done.’ Not a ‘badly done’ in it.”   – Goodreads Reviewer

 

View of Weymouth from The Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1803)

by John Feltham