Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Janespotting: Eliza's Daughter by Joan Aiken

I was eagerly anticipating getting into this take on the characters from Sense and Sensibility, because Joan Aiken (1924-2004) is an author I remember fondly from my childhood. She wrote the historical adventures The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (hmmm, Willoughby?) and Black Hearts in Battersea, among many many other novels and stories, including mysteries, period romances, fantasies, supernatural, for children, young adults, adults—well over 100 books in all. These include six novels based on Jane Austen's works, including this tale that follows the daughter Willoughby sired (and abandons) on Colonel Brandon's ward, Eliza.

The novel opens with Eliza (named after her mother) telling her tale with the story of her birth and childhood in Byblow Bottom, a village where many "unnatural" children of well-born men are fostered. Because Eliza is recounting her story in the first person, already we have a very un-Austenish tone, and as the story progresses, it becomes almost Dickensian: children (especially orphans, or may-as-well-be-orphans) at the mercy of unfeeling adults, trying to get out of scrapes and making a way for themselves. (It has been a very long time since I read Aiken's children's books, something I shall have to remedy, but I do recall a similar tone to them.) I point this out not as a complaint; I was quickly swept up into the story, and Eliza is an engaging narrator, but it does make for a very different kind of read. Did I mention that Eliza was born with an extra finger? Again, different.

As Eliza grows up, she encounters the writers Coleridge and Wordsworth, saves a stolen infant, and is taken into a wealthy family as a child's companion. Of course, this shelter does not last, and she is briefly taken in by Edward and Elinor Ferrars, serving in place of Colonel Brandon, who has taken his wife and left the country on military assignment. She is sent to school in Bath, where Marianne Dashwood teaches, and develops her own musical skills. Eventually she is forced to move again, tricked by a young dandy who offers friendship but ruins her name. She goes to London and is taken in by a duke who had once loved her mother—which comes as a surprise to Eliza, who was told her mother died shortly after giving birth. She tries to find out more about her birth father, but finds little until she makes a journey to Portugal, hoping to rescue her childhood companion, who has been severely affected by an attack. There she finds more answers, as well as a way to financial independence, which comes in the form of an inheritance from Colonel Brandon, which concludes her story.

I was fascinated by Eliza's story, if not completely satisfied with how Aiken revisits the characters from S&S. Uniformly, they are almost all worse off: Elinor and Edward are horribly poor, with Edward's pride compounding the problem until Elinor almost dies of fever; Marianne appears bitter over Brandon's support of both Elizas, and is rumored to have refused him her bed, driving him back into the service; Margaret is slaving away as a teacher with no other prospects; even Mrs. Dashwood is going senile. Not a very pretty picture, although it does compound the Dickensian air of the story.

Still, I was well pleased with Eliza's story, and her very modern insistence on finding her way in the world—at least, I was until the last page. There Eliza reveals that she is expecting a child, one which will not need to fight for her freedom. This rang false to me, after an entire book with the character taking little interest in romance, even when an arrangement with a fond childhood friend might have brought her financial security. But this is a minor quibble; I was otherwise very diverted by this novel, and I find myself intrigued to find out if Aiken took a similar approach to her other Austen sequels. Those will have to wait until I move on to other Austen novels, in a few weeks.

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