Jane Fairfax

Rating: +

Joan Aiken

Jane Fairfax is one of the non-titular young ladies in Jane Austen's Emma; this book is a Austen-adaption which covers the same time span as Emma, but from the perspective of Jane. I've resisted reading Austen-inspired novels, too many of the reviews implying pour writing and romance novel plots. Aiken was a favorite young adult author of mine, though, so I decided to give this a shot. I'm glad I did - it was entertaining, and faithful to the style and spirit of Austen's works, while adding an interesting (and quite plausible) back-story. [Note: From here on, I will assume the reader is familiar with Emma, or at least does not mind spoilers for that work.]

Unlike many novels based on a classic author's characters, Jane Fairfax doesn't pick up where the action left off. Rather, Aiken has chosen to fill in the details of a peripheral character - one who is present through most of the novel, but about whom relatively little is known. Because Jane's personality is a bit of a mystery in Emma, Aiken is able to fill it in, rather than try to mimic it. In fact, most of the scenes involving the main characters of Emma are told in almost precisely Austen's words - all dialogue is made up of direct quotes. Beyond hearing how Jane and Frank became secretly engaged, we get Aiken's reading of Emma, the Westons, and Mr. Knightly from the perspective of someone not invited into their inner circle.

Though most of the book shows Jane's life while she is living with the Campbells, Emma plays a prominent role as the neighborhood peer who never quite became a friend. Aiken clearly was bothered by Emma's self-satisfaction and condescension, and she concludes that Jane must have been aware of it as well. Aiken is sympathetic to Emma, following Austen's characterization that she's a basically good person who was over indulged. But, that does not mean that Jane has to be so easily sympathetic, and anyone who is exasperated by Emma will enjoy Jane's criticisms of her.

Of course, most of the book shows Jane's position in the Dixon household, her friendship with Miss Dixon, and the summer which ends with both Miss Dixon marrying and Jane returning to Highbury engaged to Frank. Aiken clearly read Emma very closely, particularly the portions in which Jane, Frank, and Emma appear at social events together. There were times I thought "Ah, so that's why they said that!" - this is an absolutely believable account of the events we didn't see. Jane's personality is written to be as intelligent and passionate as any Austen heroine, and yet consistent with the reserved version shown in Emma. Aiken's writing doesn't try to fake Austen's - there is less witticism-filled dialogue and more first-person introspection - but is close enough that the lines lifted directly from Emma flow naturally and are only jarring in their familiarity.

I don't think this book would be interesting if one hadn't read Emma. Passages about Jane's frustration with Mrs. Elton's unavoidable company would not be as amusing, and Frank's behavior would probably seem random and inconsistent if the reader didn't already know the other side of the story. However, one doesn't have to have loved Emma to enjoy this book - as mentioned above, I suspect Aiken didn't find Emma to be an entirely sympathetic heroine herself. In fact, the book Aiken writes seems to be the book she wishes Austen had written, in which the highly deserving and yet disadvantaged young woman faces hardship with strength and integrity and is rewarded with a loving and eligible marriage in the end.


Review written August 2002.


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