Austen in August Review: Jane Fairfax, Joan Aiken

Early in this year’s Austen in August, I discovered that well-known author Joan Aiken had penned several Austen spin-offs.  Given how much I enjoyed her Black Hearts in Battersea series, I was at once intrigued.  The consensus appeared to be that the best of her work was Jane Fairfax and since that lady is one of Austen’s more thought-provoking minor characters, I decided to risk my reading time on another Austen spin-off.  Alas.  The disappointment for me here is that not only has Aiken not produced a good Austen spin-off, it’s also not a good book.  Like PD James’ Death Comes To Pemberley, this feels more like a vanity project rather than a sincere attempt to engage with Austen’s characters and I finished reminding myself once again that spin-off literature is more full of dust than diamonds.

In attempting to understand why an author as clearly able as Aiken would produce something as dull and dim-witted, I got to thinking about the original story glimpsed in Emma.  Jane Fairfax is the elegant and demure niece of the impoverished Mrs and Miss Bates and since she is the exact same age as Emma Woodhouse, it has long been assumed that the two young ladies must be friends.  Emma however finds Jane too polished and perfect – or is it possibly that she unwilling to kow-tow to Emma’s wealth?  Emma’s ‘friendship’ with Harriet Smith implies that Emma is not looking for equality in her companions, being determined to be always placed first.  Emma is jealous of Jane Fairfax’s good looks and musical talent whilst simultaneously congratulating herself for her own good taste in being able to recognise Jane’s superiority.  With Jane having been brought up by the Campbells, who were friends of her father, she has travelled more than Emma and is assumed to be more worldly.  However, now that the Campbells’ daughter is married, it is expected that she will have to make her way in the world as a governess.  Emma is certain that there is some scandal involving Jane Fairfax and Mr Dixon, the new husband of Miss Campbell and along with Frank Churchill, attempts to uncover the secret.  As the novel heads towards its conclusion however, it transpires that Frank Churchill has been playing a double game and that he and Jane Fairfax have been engaged the whole time.  The whole point of Emma is that she is clueless about the world around her while telling herself that she sees all and her misunderstanding of the connection between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is ultimate example of this.

Jane Fairfax & Frank Churchill – 1996 film

The secret romance between Jane and Frank threads through the novel and becomes very obvious on the re-read.  He fusses and sulks over having to go and call on the Bateses since due to having met her at Weymouth, there is ‘just the degree of acquaintance’ between him and Miss Fairfax, it would be rude to do otherwise.  He asks his father to ask Miss Bates in supposedly because that lady’s chatter amuses him, then Mr Weston says that if they’re asking Miss Bates, they really ought to ask Miss Fairfax.  Frank Churchill is forever engineering quiet moments between himself and Miss Fairfax and nobody notices.  When he is grumpy at Box Hill, we later realise that it is because the pair have quarrelled and when he rescues Harriet from the gypsies, he is only on the spot because he has just left a secret rendez-vous with Jane.

I was interested to note in other reviews of Jane Fairfax that certain readers believe that the tale of Jane Fairfax is more interesting than that of Emma Woodhouse.  With its twists and turns and trickery, it would be the more obvious fodder for a novelist.  Jane Austen however turns away from their story because contrary to popular opinion, she was not a romance novelist.  She focuses her novel instead on the stuck-up girl’s journey towards self-discovery.  Jane and Frank’s affair is a tease – we can see that something is going on but Emma is utterly oblivious to it so we never get to look closer.  The few hints we have dropped to us however imply a love that is truly passionate – the couple within Austen’s canon who risk the most for love are the pair who are barely ever seen to speak to each other.

Aiken’s novel starts promisingly and I was impressed by how she seemed to sustain the Austen-esque cadence within her prose – the opening pages seemed almost plausibly written by the great lady herself.  The idea of Jane Fairfax growing up wearing Emma Woodhouse’s cast-off ‘wearing apparel’ was an intriguing one, further linking these two unwilling friends together.  Equally the idea of them sharing a music master as an act of charity from Mrs Woodhouse.  It seemed entirely plausible that Mrs Woodhouse should have died in childbirth and that the child Emma should become impossible to deal with – but it all began to go a little pear-shaped when Aiken had Emma turn against Jane when she discovered that Mrs Woodhouse had bequeathed Jane money for her education.

Matters head further towards the absurd when young Jane is packed off to be raised by the Campbells.  The emphasis on how foreign their customs are, the way in which Colonel Campbell goes from kindly and understanding to domestic tyrant and then back again repeatedly, to the strange Mary-Sue-ish Rachel Campbell – it rather stretches credulity.  Likewise the introduction of the Dixon characters, referred to repeatedly as ‘Matt’ and ‘Sam’.  Because that doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb at all in a story that is intended to be a spin-off from a book where a man (Frank Churchill) makes a point about referring to his fiancée as Miss Fairfax because he wants to show her respect.  It’s unfortunate because it means that the characters over whom Aiken has the greatest creative control are the most unbelievable and inconsistent with the parent-narrative.

Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse – 2009 television adaptation

The problems with this book go a good deal deeper though.  We are told that Mrs Campbell’s mother, who comes to live with the family, has a vendetta against Jane and then there is the ‘bracelet affair’ which causes the death of Jane and Rachel’s young ladies’ maid.  This happens, we are assured it is important, then it is never referred to again.  This is just poor plotting – and then it gets worse.  Much is made in Emma of the moment where Jane Fairfax is almost swept overboard while on a boat outing and then is saved by Mr Dixon (or ‘Matt’).  Emma Woodhouse decides that this means that there is a forbidden love between Miss Fairfax and Mr Dixon – she is looking for a scandal.  The reader can deduce from Frank Churchill that this is more likely the moment that he realised the depths of his own feelings.  For Aiken to dismiss this scene and place it ‘offstage’ is one of the worst mistakes that this book makes.  That should have been the key pressure point within her novel.  Instead, Aiken spends far too much of the novel being just as foolish as Emma Woodhouse herself, implying that Jane is in love with ‘Matt’.  We already know that she was not, because Emma said she was and Emma is always wrong.

In Aiken’s novel, Frank Churchill is quieter and less foolish – less interesting.  His love springs on Jane as a surprise while she is mourning the sacrifice of ‘Matt’ to her friend Rachel.  It never seems as if she actually loves him, meaning that all the later Highbury sufferings are meaningless.  She is watching her betrothed flirt with Emma and caring very little.  She is not hoping against hope that they will be able to find a way to be together, she is still weighing up whether being a governess might not be slightly better than chancing a partnership with someone so unreliable.  Aiken throws in stray plot ideas as if she is out of inspiration – one minute men are proposing to Jane left right and centre because they erroneously believe that she will come with a dowry, then there is a race between Rachel and her cousin Charlotte since whoever marries first will inherit jewels.  In the midst of it all, Rachel laments that moving to Ireland for her husband will mean that she will lose her career as a ‘political cartoonist’, but the reader can hardly be expected to care about something mentioned for five lines fifty pages ago.  Jane Fairfax is an odd, odd book – it is not just that it fails to marry up with the original narrative, but Aiken also manages to make it a very dull story.

So – as is no doubt clear, this is not a book that I could recommend.  Still, I did find myself wondering – Emma was put off by the reticence of Miss Fairfax’s character, by the perfection of her features and accomplishments – is Jane Fairfax perhaps too flawless to be a compelling heroine?  Many people have taken against Emma down the centuries because she is snobbish and insensitive and frankly stupid – but is it easier to love someone who has imperfections than someone like Jane?  In narrative tradition, Miss Fairfax would be the more classical heroine – poor but deserving, beautiful and hard-working, trying to live a blameless and virtuous life and finally rescued by a kind and rich gentleman.  Except that said gentleman has some decidedly ungentlemanly qualities and it seems implicitly acknowledged that it is not fair that it is either this or the governess trade.  Emma was Austen’s most sophisticated novel and she was doing something very clever with the character of Jane Fairfax but you would never guess so from reading Jane Fairfax.



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Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken
Published by St. Martin's Press on March 15th 1997
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 256
ISBN: 9780312157074

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6 thoughts on “Austen in August Review: Jane Fairfax, Joan Aiken

  1. This has to be one of your most negative reviews for quite a long time, but…

    As always it is well written and argued, getting your points across as to why you don’t like it rather than just dismissing it!

    So well done for that, it is one of the things that makes your blog so readable.

    1. Thank you – I think this review is partly just disappointment, Joan Aiken is actually a good writer and I think I expected more.

      Spin-offs aren’t easy I guess. I should probably try reviewing the Wolves of Willoughby Chase or something to make up for this …

  2. Uh oh, will you still be my friend if I admit that I enjoyed this book the first time I read it? It did not hold up so well on a reread though. In general, Aiken’s Austen retellings start off well — she does have a way with the language that some other authors do not — but they veer too far into absurdity for me.

    1. Oh! Of course – I am honoured to be your friend Lory, and I am sorry if I’ve berated a book that you’re fond of! It’s funny how if you read a book at a certain time, you can overlook its flaws more easily – I was really impressed by this book’s opening pages as I said above, it just seemed that she’d handled the material in a strange way. I really wanted to like this book too – I couldn’t help but think there are quite a few parallels between the two authors, such as them both being fans of the Stuarts – did you ever read Black Hearts in Battersea?

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