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JANE FAIRFAX by Joan Aiken



Pub Date: May 21st, 1991
ISBN: 031215707X
Publisher: St. Martin's

As in her Mansfield Revisited (1985), Aiken (author of over 50 novels, plays, etc.) revisits Jane Austen's lanes and chambers to produce a pleasant, eminently respectable complement to Emma, a novel some Janites consider Austen's Hamlet. Here, it's Emma's sometime neighbor, Jane Fairfax, whom Emma disliked "but never really knew why," whose career while offstage in Emma is chronicled. According to Austen, "handsome, clever and rich" Emma Woodhouse had "a disposition to think a little too well of herself," a sentiment underscored by Aiken: for Emma, "alertness to the feelings of other individuals would never form a prime factor." Aiken envisions childhood meetings with Emma and Jane, when Jane was grievously bullied and hurt. Then Jane is taken away from Highbury Village to live in London with the kind Campbells, where she'll help her dearest friend Rachel Campbell to overcome her stammer and encourage her satiric drawings (a touch of glowering here suggests that gender prevents a career). Aiken elaborates on Austen's hint that Jane may have had some tenderness toward charming Matt Dixon, and includes views of a silly Campbell cousin, escorting fops, and a terrifying Campbell grandmother. Then it's back to Highbury, where, as Mr. Knightley (eventually Emma's husband) suspects, charming Frank Churchill has someone else in mind while he flirts with Emma. An agreeable tribute to Austen rather than an imitation; the style approximates, never parrots that of the Mighty Jane. There's nothing here, in other words, to ruffle Austen fans, and for the uninitiated, this is a bright and pleasing early-19th-century romance.a