Joan Aiken’s Felix & Jane Austen’s Susan – Unlikely Travelling Companions?

felix-susan

Aiken’s Felix Brooke and Austen’s ‘Susan’ – or should that be Catherine Morland..?

Joan Aiken’s passion for history often led her to wonder ‘what if’ things had turned out differently.  What if, for instance,  Jane Austen’s early novel, originally entitled ‘Susan’ when she sold it to a publisher in 1803, and which then languished unpublished until she furiously bought it back for £10 thirteen years later, had in fact appeared, even maybe without the knowledge of its author, and had been in the pocket of a young nobleman who ran away to join the Peninsular wars in Spain at the beginning of the 19th century.

The young man falls in love, and marries an aristocratic Spanish girl who dies having his baby, and he watches over the boy, disguised as a groom until his own death. He leaves a letter, and his treasured book, to the boy, Felix Brooke,  with a message telling him to seek out his long lost family in the city of Bath, England where the action of Austen’s novel had taken place.  For Joan Aiken imagined that this was actually Jane Austen’s early novel, ‘Northanger Abbey’  written in the full enthusiasm and confidence of youth, and  a delightful parody of all the Gothic romances so popular at the time.

The novel is also a description of an innocent abroad, a heroine with a head full of fantasy from reading too many novels,  who finds herself alone in a dangerous world struggling to make sense of the behaviour of unscrupulous villains or apparently solicitous friends with nothing but the world of fiction to guide her.  This is much the same situation in which the Spanish orphan, young Felix Brooke finds himself, but in a truly wild and Gothic landscape with terrifying brigands and murderers, mountain tribesmen looking for a human sacrifice, or even pirates who specialise in the kidnap of children,  with only the assistance of Austen’s novel to sustain and comfort him.

In Joan Aiken’s Go Saddle the Sea Felix tells us about it as he is recounting his story:

“The book, Susan, was an odd tale about a young lady and her quest for a husband; to tell truth, I wondered what my father had seen in it, that he had even carried it with him into battle; I found it rather dull, but since it had been my father’s I kept it carefully (his bloodstains were on the cover).”

Later in his adventures, having escaped various perils by the skin of his teeth and the use of his not inconsiderable wits, Felix has time to look into the book again, and reconsiders:

“I had opened it at the place where Miss Susan, going to stay with her great friends in their abbey-residence, is terrified at night by a fearful storm and the discovery of a paper,hid in a closet in her bedroom, which she takes to be the confession of some wicked deed of blood – only to find, next day, that the mysterious paper is naught but a washing bill!  For the first time, this struck me as very comical; yet, reading it through again, I could see that the writer had represented the poor young lady’s terrors very skilfully; just such a nightmarish terror had I felt myself among those unchancy people in that heathen village – and yet for all I knew, my fears were equally foolish and unfounded!  I began to see that this was not such a simple tale as I had hitherto supposed, but must be attended to carefully; and I gave my father credit for better judgement than I had at first…wondering what kind of man my father had been..and hoping that some person in England would be able to tell me more about him.”

In an article for the Jane Austen Society, Joan Aiken describes with relish the content of  Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which Austen had gleefully satirised:

“If we take a look at the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, we can easily see what tempted the youthful Jane Austen to poke fun at them…[they were] enormous historical canvases splashed over with forests and beetling fortresses and dark crags in the Appennines.  Mrs. Radcliffe went in for immense casts of characters on a positively Shakespearian scale (she was in fact much influenced by Shakespeare for whom she had great admiration); she had stabbings and shootings, suicides and assassinations, immensely complicated family relationships, long-lost relatives in every possible connection, suggestions of incest, mysterious resemblances, and, besides all this, a large number of startling, apparently supernatural occurrences..”

From this we can see that these writers had an equally powerful influence on Joan Aiken’s own work, and by setting her novel,  Go Saddle the Sea in just such a rip roaring Gothic world of her own imagination in 19th century Spain, and with a nod at Austen’s own parody, she could have the best of all worlds!

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Go Saddle the Sea 1

Go Saddle the Sea is the first of the three ‘Felix’ Novels in new editions in the UK

For more details visit the Joan Aiken page at Random House

or visit the Felix pages at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken

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Joan & Jane: Writers and their heroines

Joan Aiken took her characters very much to heart, rather like  her favourite predecessor, Jane Austen, and it could be said that for both writers their heroines had a life outside their books as well. It is easy to forget that before Jane Austen, literary heroines were rather one dimensional – idealised, passive characters who simply suffered all sorts of misfortunes, and so the fact that Austen’s Elizabeth or Emma were in fact far from faultless makes them more attractive and sympathetic. In a letter to her niece Austen said jokingly,  ‘Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked.’

Dido Twite,  Joan’s enduring heroine, is also far from perfect, in fact she starts out in Black Hearts in Battersea as a perfect pest, or ‘Brat’, as Simon calls her. But it is her fallibility, even her neediness, her cockiness and stubbornness that in the end make her sympathetic, and just as Simon softens towards her and begins to see her true spirit, so do we.  Joan confessed that she had considered letting Dido disappear at the end of this first book, but she had one particularly anguished letter from a fan, saying ‘please please write a book having Dido come back,’ which made her relent.

Austen’s family related that Jane had all sorts of plans for her characters’ future lives, and described what might have befallen them in later years, which has perhaps helped to encourage the writing of Austen sequels – it is as hard for the writer as it is for the reader to part from characters they have grown fond of in the course of a book.

Joan, towards the end of her life was deeply troubled that she had left the two main characters in her Wolves Chronicles in an impossible situation. She felt she owed it not just to her readers, but to Simon and Dido themselves to extricate them from the plight where she had left them, and give them the possibility of a happy ending.  She wrote in an afterword to her last book, The Witch of Clatteringshaws that reading Jane Austen’s unfinished book The Watsons   had  been ‘very, very teasing. You want so much to know what would have happened next’ and so she had to go on and write an ending for Austen’s book herself.  As to her own work she apologised for ‘taking some wild leaps’ and writing rather a short book to end her great series, but better to do that than fail to finish it. And Dido certainly lives on for many, many readers – perhaps someday someone will write a sequel for her too?

Simon & Dido

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Simon and Dido

Illustration by Robin Jacques

Cheering reads for Wintry ( or sultry!) days: Jane Austen & Joan Aiken

Unseasonable weather causes a carriage accident at the opening of one of Joan Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’: Lady Catherine’s Necklace

https://joanaiken.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/lady-c-page-11.jpg

   So begins Joan Aiken’s sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which recently celebrated 200 years as one of the most popular novels of all time.  A dangerous exercise to emulate a favourite author, you might think, but instead of trying to follow the romantic hero and heroine, Aiken’s story gleefully takes up the highly unpopular Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and her unfortunate daughter Anne to see what might become of them after Darcy has married Elizabeth and escaped to Pemberley.

Giving Lady Catherine her comeuppance is a brilliant idea, and in fact the more we see of her, the more extraordinary she becomes…  And Anne? Was she disappointed to lose Mr Darcy? You would think so, but Aiken sees her as a girl of character and has a whole other future in mind for her, as we see when we meet  the new arrivals, forced by their carriage accident to put up at Rosings…

This interesting pair of siblings – Ralph and Priscilla Delaval – easily equal Mansfield Park’s Mary and Henry Crawford in their ability to charm and cause chaos in the lives and hearts of everyone they meet; and was their arrival indeed an accident?

As Jane Austen wrote for the  comfort of another heroine, Emma Watson, left in painful  and difficult circumstances at the unhappy conclusion of the unfinished chapters of Austen’s The Watsons,  reading is sometimes the only comfort, and produces one of Austen’s most heartfelt comments on the life of the single, dependent female.

For this heroine ‘the evils’ of her situation “were neither trifling nor likely to lessen; and when thought had been freely indulged in contrasting the past and the present, the employment of mind and dissipation of unpleasant ideas which only reading could produce made her thankfully turn to a book.”

From Jane Austen’s The Watsons

 

 New hardback and EBook Joan Aiken editions

from Jonathan Cape at Random House

Lady Catherine cover

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More to follow in the series, including Mansfield Revisited

Read more about Joan Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’

in the New York Times Book Review

article by Lizzie Skurnick

 celebrating Jane Austen’s 200th anniversary

and on the Joan Aiken website

P.S.

Of course Joan Aiken couldn’t resist rescuing poor Emma Watson from her difficulties and giving her more  adventures than she would ever have found in that book –

in her own sequel

The Watsons and Emma Watson

You can read the two authors side by side in this edition

Watsons