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 obviously 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, we at last get to visit this exciting seaside resort, and discover what happens in Weymouth…
We learn from Austen’s Emma that Jane Fairfax has stayed there and meets 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, 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 understanding and re-working of Austen’s novels:
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, before finally realising the ‘unromantic’ reality of love and marriage – what it really means to find and accept a partner for life.
Her 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 opportunity, 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.
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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
“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