I love reading rewrites of Jane Austen novels. The best of them manage to capture the spirit and time of Austen’s works while bringing something new and fresh to the story. These works are very much like a variation on a well-known theme.

Today I finished reading Jane Fairfax: The Secret Story of the Second Heroine in Jane Austen’s Emma by Joan Aiken. The novel retells some of the events of Emma from the point of view of Jane Fairfax, the young woman who competes with Austen’s heroine for the affections of Frank Churchill.

In Austen’s novel, the reserved and somewhat cold Jane is little more than a foil for Emma. When Emma briefly flirts with Churchill, Jane is the woman who becomes the subject of Emma’s unkind speculations.

In Aiken’s novel, Jane is the orphaned daughter of a military men who is taken in by Colonel Campbell in return for her father’s good deed of saving his life. While Colonel Campbell does his best for Jane, she is nevertheless destined to become a governess and earn her keep, unless she can manage to find a husband for herself before the Campbell’s daughter and Jane’s best friend, Rachel, finds one. Jane and Rachel grow up together; when they fall in love with the same man, Jane must choose between making herself unhappy by giving up the man she loves or making her friend unhappy by marrying him.

There is a lot to recommend Jane Fairfax. Aiken creates a likable heroine in Jane. She also captures the essential zeitgeist of Austen’s novels. And she interweaves scenes from Emma into her own plot seamlessly. All of Austen’s characters are present, and Aiken’s portrayal of them remains faithful to her source material. Emma is condescending and vain but also generally kind and redeemable. Knightly is the stuff of every girl’s wish fulfillment. Frank Churchill is unthinking but attractive. Harriet Smith is Emma’s sycophant. Mr. and Mrs. Elton are petty and vicious in a small-minded way.

One of my favorite aspects is Aiken’s treatment of Emma herself. One of the joys of rewriting this novel from Jane’s perspective is that we get the chance to critique Emma more pointedly than Austen is able to do. Since she’s no longer the heroine, Aiken can show all of her vanity, self-centeredness, and parochialism with impunity. For anyone who isn’t exactly in love with Austen’s heroine, Aiken’s depiction provides a great deal of fun. While she shows Emma’s metaphorical warts, she never violates Austen’s essential view of the character. And by the end of the book, Emma has learned her lessons and has become a better woman for them.

But there are also a few aspects of the novel that fall short in my estimation. The novel’s opening chapters are the weakest. In particular, I thought the depiction of the 8-year-old Jane as a little adult, dispensing advice and wisdom to her elders was a little too much. We don’t really get a child in these early chapter; we get a grownup in an 8-year-old’s body. I would have preferred to see more development in the character from childhood to adulthood.

Second, Aiken’s depiction of Frank Churchill lacked a key ingredient for me: his actions in relation to Emma and Jane need some explanation. In Emma, the audience is left to judge Churchill, most pointedly through Mr. Knightley’s judgement of his character and behavior in flirting with Emma in ways that would normally have compromised her character. If you’re going to rewrite the novel from Jane’s point of view, you need to justify this behavior somehow. I think he needs to be romanticized to some degree. Aiken refuses to do this. Instead, she accepts Austen’s judgement as accurate and leaves it at that. My problem with this is that the reader is left to wonder whether Jane has indeed made the right choice in marrying him. I would have preferred a more definite affirmation of her choice. After all, Austen never leaves this sort of question up in the air.

And finally, the last few paragraphs of the novel make no sense to me. In effect, they state two characters’ inability to reconcile even though both now see each other in a new, positive light. By the end of the book, most of Jane’s friendships are broken, which isn’t really necessary. In some ways, this is the least Austen-like part of the book. While Austen can leave characters unreconciled from one another, it usually only happens for good reason. Jane Fairfax‘s reason for leaving these two particular characters apart makes no real sense.

But on the whole, Jane Fairfax is a good read, one that captures much of Austen’s social satire and characterization. It’s not the best Austen rewrite I’ve read, but it’s definitely a good one well worth reading.

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