Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Janespotting: The Youngest Miss Ward by Joan Aiken

Last week I read a very traditional Mansfield Park sequel written by British novelist Joan Aiken in 1984; this week I read a not-so-traditional MP prequel the same author wrote in 1998. The Youngest Miss Ward centers around the family that provides MP with three characters: Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and the elder Frances Price. The novel opens as Maria Ward has secured a marriage with Sir Thomas Bertram, and her father has bestowed a relatively large dowry upon her, as befits marriage to a baronet. That leaves less than expected for Maria's other sisters: Agnes, the eldest, whom they expect to match with the cleric Mr. Norris; Frances, who is beautiful but a bit flighty; and the title character Harriet, aka Hatty, who is only twelve as the novel opens.

Hatty's life becomes a series of disappointments as her relatives keep interfering in it. When her distant cousin Lady Ursula comes to visit, she convinces the family that Hatty should be sent to her uncle rather than "tire out" her mother by reading with her all the time. Hatty isn't even allowed to return home when her mother dies; she manages to adjust to the new household anyway. She comes to enjoy her practical Aunt Polly's company, finds a sympathetic companion in her cousin Ned, and helps her disabled twin cousins develop their mental capacities, despite their nurse's disapproval. She also meets the eccentric Lord Camber, a freethinker who encourages her poetic efforts. After her aunt becomes ill, Hatty ably manages the household through a crisis as measles strikes the family. After it kills the twins, however, their nurse engineers her ouster, blaming Hatty's failure to reveal cousin Ned's affair with a local girl for their illness. Although her eldest cousin, the obnoxious Sydney, offers to marry her because she is such a good household manager, she chooses to return to her father, instead.

She is caught in a snowstorm on the way back to her father's and is forced to spend time at the cottage of the very amiable Lord Camber. She enjoys her time in his household, but the snow ends and he leaves for a social experiment in America and she heads to her father's. Her father, however, has been killed in a hunting accident, and since the property is entailed to the nearest male relative (the aforementioned Sydney), Hatty finds herself without a home once again. Lady Ursula once again provides the "solution": Hatty will go to the estate of Ursula's parents, Count and Countess Elstow, and serve as governess to their two girls.

It's an even more challenging situation for Hatty: the Count is absent, the Countess cares little about the girls; the elder girl is an egomaniac and a kleptomaniac, and the younger girl is mentally disabled (although a musical genius). Hatty is cut off from the members of her uncle's family she loves—she's not even informed when her Aunt Polly dies—and bothered by the ones she doesn't, when Sydney repeats his proposals. When the elder Elstow girl steals her poetry journal, it's the last straw. She retreats to Lord Camber's cottage, where he had invited her to stay any time, only to find Lady Ursula ensconced there, claiming she owns the title.

Still, Hatty finds ways to make herself useful, and after Lady Ursula is attacked by wasps (!) it is discovered that Lord Camber actually made over the title to Hatty. She also finds a letter from Lord Camber to her aunt (one of many letters in several epistolary sections), declaring he would like to make Hatty his wife after he returns from America. So when Lord Camber unexpectedly appears at the cottage shortly after Lady Ursula's mishap, we're all set up for the traditional romantic happy ending, right?

Wrong. Accompanying Lord Camber is a young Native American woman, whom he has married to save from tribal banishment. In another case of interference, Lady Ursula had written to his compatriot that Sydney was intending to marry Hatty. Hatty, however, makes a better ending for herself: she gets her first volume of poems published (under a male pseudonym, of course), keeps the cottage for herself, and marries Lord Camber's steward, who is a much more practical man whom she has grown to love and respect.

This was another enjoyable volume from Aiken, although in tone and plot it was much closer to the Dickensian Eliza's Daughter than the more imitative Mansfield Revisited. It reminds me that Aiken is a consistently entertaining writer, and I'm really looking forward to her Emma variation, Jane Fairfax. There are a few more MP sequels to go, as well as two or three film adaptations, so that will have to wait a while. I'm definitely planning to re-read her children's books some time in the distant future, when I finally get around to that "Diane revisits her childhood favorites" feature.

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