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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

 

Advertisements

An Easter egg story from Joan Aiken…and Jan Pienkowski

House Egg story

Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops stories famously illustrated by Jan Pienkowski have been bedtime reading favourites for years. In this story – A Bed for the Night – four travelling musicians with wonderfully tongue in cheek names are wandering in search of a home:

Bed for the Night

In classic fable format, the friends ask various animals and people they meet if they can offer a bed for the night, but everyone turns them down. Finally they meet an old lady, who has a house like Baba Yaga’s – standing on its one chicken leg – which has just laid an egg! But this time the story ends happily, although not in the way we expect – the brothers hunt for the egg and bring it back, but by the time they do it has cracked – it’s hatching, into another one legged house, and so the old lady crossly gives it to them – because now she can’t boil it for her supper…

Bed for the Night Pic

>>>>O<<<<

Read more about this beautifully illustrated collection A Necklace of Raindrops

Or find the audio version read by Joan Aiken’s daughter Lizza Aiken

Giving a voice to women – Joan Aiken’s folk tales for the next generation.

The furious tree

Old ladies, browbeaten wives, silent mothers, unhappy daughters – all are given a chance to speak their thoughts, and even practise a little magic in Joan Aiken’s modern folk tales,  particularly in a late collection called Mooncake.  Dark and modern these tales may be, dealing with the evils of our own current society,  but they call up the voices of the past in order to share their wisdom.

With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a beastly and these days rather recognisable property developer as the villain of one of her stories:

Sir Groby's Golf course

But the aptly named Mrs Quill has her resources; after the destruction of her orchard, her house and her livelihood, she moves into the world next door, from where she haunts Sir Groby until he repents of his greed and the despoiling of his own world, and realises he must try to put back what was lost. You will notice that Mrs Quill has inherited her wisdom, and her orchard from her mother and her grandmother and so is trebly unwilling to break the chain.

However, what is interesting in these socially resonant folk tales with their mysterious women bringing messages to the world, is that in almost all cases, the recipient of this wisdom is a boy – a son, or grandson, a protester who goes to live in the woods, a young man who appears and is prepared to tune in to the wisdom of his elders, and specifically to women. The boy who arrives to pass a message from Mrs Quill to Sir Groby from the apple orchard in the other world, is called Pip.

In Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic  powers to save his mediaeval island castle from invaders:

The witch's magic

In Hot Water Paul inherits some ‘speaking’ presents from his grandmother (one of them is a parrot!) and learns what they mean in true folk tradition, by making his own mistakes.  The Furious Tree in the illustration above is of course  an angry wise woman who must bide her time in disguise until Johnnie, the great-great-grandson of the earlier villain comes to live in the tree and stop it being cut down.

The voice of the tree

“The only way to deal with guilt or grief is to share it.” The tree tells him: ” Let the wind carry it away.”     And that is what these stories do, pass on the wisdom, or the grievances – the equally speaking experience of the old, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn and move on.

In one story that particularly touches me, a boy who was unable to hear his mother’s last words when she dies, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak, and at last he seems to hear a voice:

Last words

And in my case, lots of books…

Mrs Quill

Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson

Read more about the book here

 

>>>>*<<<<

Joan Aiken’s best advice for World Book Day? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel enjoys reading aloud to Mortimer in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories, illustrated here by Quentin Blake.  Mortimer is actually busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find a good use for some of the information she shares with him from the Children’s Encyclopaedia later on in their adventure…

Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:

Reading Aloud quote

But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud for her mother, and wrote: “She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”

Sadly in those days all the books later had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan tries to analyse why those first books read aloud to her had such potency, and decides that it is the element of mystery, of only partly being able to understand the language, that made them so special for her. One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising – but her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.

The illustrations were equally scary…

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote, a particular highlight after this was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth; here you will notice that she is still barely four:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, to myself and my brother – we loved it of course, but I can see my nerves were not quite as steely as hers:)

Corpse painting 2

Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family.  All those shared stories and even the unforgettable and hair raising experiences become markers of family history; the quotations especially become landmarks in their own right, and will live on in other settings. It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

> > > * < < <

Best Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares?

A Necklace of Raindrops or Past Eight 0’Clock

Or of course Arabel and Mortimer, but then you’ll always have to read another story!

And today, March 1st is Jessie’s Birthday, and so a fitting day to celebrate her!