Mary Swann’s Way

Danny Karlin

  • Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken
    Gollancz, 252 pp, £12.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 575 04889 1
  • Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 536 pp, £13.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3574 3
  • Mary Swann by Carol Shields
    Fourth Estate, 313 pp, £12.99, August 1990, ISBN 1 872180 02 7

Jane Austen’s work seems, at first, hospitable to that literary parasite, pastiche: there isn’t much of it, so ersatz continuations or alternative narratives must satisfy the hunger for more; at the same time, the passionate familiarity which many Jane Austen readers have with her novels (demonstrated in Kipling’s wonderful story ‘The Janeites’) ensures a ready frame of reference for the imitator. But Jane Austen is, in fact, notoriously hard to ‘do’ convincingly. Joan Aiken (their names are horribly homophonic – could this have given her the idea?) is the author of Mansfield Revisited, which seems to have been successful enough to persuade her to try the market again. I have only ever read one such work, the continuation of Sanditon by ‘a Lady’ published some years ago; the bitter taste still lingers on, and I have a grudging sense that Jane Fairfax may not be quite as thin a dish of gruel as that. Instead it has an unappealing, mixed-up wrongness of flavour. It wants to be both like Jane Austen (to substitute for the real thing) and to revise Jane Austen (to be a real thing itself). Aiken disastrously fails to recognise that these are incompatible aims. She plunders Austen’s novel (sometimes quoting it verbatim or paraphrasing it closely, though ‘her’ Miss Bates or Mr Woodhouse or Emma have embalming-fluid in their literary veins); other characters derive weakly from other Austen novels (a brutal fop from Northanger Abbey, a kind-hearted mother from Sense and Sensibility) and one has strayed in wearing Mrs Jellyby’s clothes from Bleak House. At the same time, Aiken misreads Emma in crassly uninteresting ways. The plot turns on Emma’s fantasies about sexual relationships being mistaken, yet Aiken makes her daft suspicion of a liaison between Jane and Mr Dixon, formed at Weymouth, turn out to be true after all. This makes absolute nonsense of Jane’s relationship with Frank Churchill: the upright, pure-hearted, melancholy Jane is represented as choosing to enter into a clandestine engagement with a man she does not really love, and (even more ludicrously) is endowed with a romantic yearning for Mr Knightley worthy of Harriet Smith herself.

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