Much to their surprise, Jane Austen fans are only just 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, Lizzie Skurnick, 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.