Joan Aiken’s sequels take Jane Austen’s heroines to new and dangerous situations, but still allows them the same indomitable characteristics they display in the original novels. Which sister did you identify with in Sense and Sensibility – cautious Elinor who guarded her pain and hid her broken heart, or extravagant Marianne who gave hers away and broadcast her delirious grief? Or would you follow in the footsteps of Aiken’s Eliza, first heard of as a by-blow of Willoughby’s cast off mistress, whose dubious background makes her ineligible for marriage, and who therefore eschews commitment in favour of self sufficiency, an extraordinary career, and adventure abroad…
As many commentators have pointed out, although world events may only have been in the background of her novels, Austen’s family were closely affected by the wars and politics of her day; Jane knew plenty about both through the careers of her naval brothers, and also through the experiences of her extraordinary cousin, another Eliza, born in Calcutta and married in Paris to the Comte de Feuillide who was executed at the Guillotine.
This Eliza, a notorious flirt until she married Jane’s brother Henry, may have inspired Austen’s worldly Mary Crawford; the adventures of this namesake cousin certainly influenced Joan Aiken in her sequel to Sense and Sensibility – Eliza’s Daughter.
In Aiken’s imagination we meet the sisters again, later in life and suffering a different series of vicissitudes. For example Marianne is sent abroad with Colonel Brandon and his regiment:
“for nothing would serve but she must pack up and accompany him to India, despite the wicked climate, and the ferocity of the natives, despite the warnings of her friends, and the fact that she had seemed very happy at Delaford.”
Even the serious Elinor suffers an alarm or two, she nearly dies when Delaford is ravaged by a flood, and is later discovered to have a fantastic secret of her own…
But the heroine of Aiken’s novel is the young Eliza, first seen as a bright small girl, the eager acquaintance of two gentlemen called Sam (Coleridge) and Bill (Wordsworth) who enjoy her company and do a good deal to foster her intelligence, and who later, after a brief education in Bath, becomes a talented opera singer, and finally an adventuress in Portugal during the Napoleonic wars, where she travels with a knife down her boot to fend off villains – and where she finally discovers the truth about her feckless father.
Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’ as she called them, were thoroughly researched; not only was she deeply familiar with the original novels, but she had fully studied the period, its language, customs and history, and offers some fascinating background detail of her own. One wonderful discovery ( a reminder that this is a country at war!) was about the bedding offered to the girls in the Queen’s Square seminary that Eliza attends.
They sleep under “Napoleon blankets (with tapes attached, so that they could be worn as outer garments in the event of a sudden French invasion taking place in the middle of the night).”
Missish? Certainly not!
The illustration above is from Pat Marriot’s cover
for Joan Aiken’s The Teeth of the Gale
which has another indomitable ( and Spanish) heroine!
Here is a feisty New York Review of Books appreciation
of Aiken’s six Austen Entertainments