Saturday, August 30, 2008

Joan Aiken does Jane Austen

(or, JA does JA)

The late Joan Aiken is one of my favorite authors. For the most part, I have only read her children's books. I adored The Wolves of Willoughby Chase when I was very young. Later my favorite of hers became (and still remains) The Whispering Mountain.

Recently I discovered her Jane Austen sequels. She handles the language pretty well,* which makes sense because many of her children's stories are set in the 19th century--specifically, an alternate 19th century in which the Hanoverians never came to the English throne and the Channel Tunnel opened in 1832 instead of 1994. She takes a similar "alternative" approach in these novels, which might be described as "Austen Through the Looking Glass." Aiken's style also tends to be dark--or rather, light on the surface with dark shadows clearly visible. This is not entirely incompatible, in my opinion, with Austen, but Aiken dares to go where Austen never could.

Here are my comments on specific books (listed in the order in which I read them):
  • Jane Fairfax: a retelling of Emma from Miss Fairfax's point of view, so technically not a sequel. In fact quite a bit of it is a prequel, depicting Jane and Emma as children. In the original novel, Emma gives the impression that she and Jane barely know each other, but Aiken tells us that they were once close friends, until parted by an unfortunate incident. This gives great poignancy to their later cold interactions. Although Jane is poor and orphaned, she ends up getting to live in London and travel abroad. When she goes back to the village of Highbury, she's struck by how parochial it is, and in fact she pities Emma, who despite her money and popularity is stuck in this narrow little world. (Might this not also be Aiken's comment on Austen?)
  • Eliza's Daughter: a sequel to Sense and Sensibility. This one differs most from the original novel, not only because the main character never appeared in the original, but also because when original characters appear, they are for the most part depicted quite differently, and, perhaps most important, the main character is someone who I don't believe Austen could ever have based a story on. Eliza's daughter is the illegitimate child of an illegitimate child; as such, she can never enter "good society." She's raised by peasants, in a village which seems to make its living by caring for respectable people's bastards. In time she goes to visit Elinor and Edward. Readers of the original novel tend to be shocked by the depiction of this couple. They live almost in poverty, Edward is a complete prig, and Elinor has faded away. Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite Austens, and I was certainly shocked, but I can't entirely disagree with Aiken's approach. Here is another interesting detail: Eliza's daughter (also named Eliza, by the way) is sent to live with an aunt of Elinor's, a well-to-do lady who was once charged with shoplifting a piece of lace, priced at five shillings. The penalty for this heinous crime was either death or transportation: she was jailed for a few months, then tried and acquitted. I assumed that Aiken made this up, but apparently it really happened to Austen's aunt.
  • Mansfield Revisited. I think this was the first Austen sequel she did, because it starts off with a near-apology for the "presumption" of attempting to write a new Austen novel. Ironically, her later sequels got a lot more presumptuous. I was hoping she would turn Mansfield Park on its head; alas, no. I may also remark at this point that I rarely find Aiken's heterosexual romances to be convincing.
* It's not completely authentic, but then people don't want authentic. It's too hard to read. As a further digression, authors who attempt to write in the style of the 19th century often seem to end up doing Dickens, even when their stories are set in the Austenian (known to some as the Napoleonic) era. The excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is another example of this.

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