REVIEW: Eliza’s Daughter by Joan Aiken


Eliza's Daughter by Joan AikenReview by MJ Ryan

From the back of the book:

“Because she’s an illegitimate child, Eliza is raised in a rural backwater with very little supervision. An intelligent, creative and free-spirited heroine, unfettered by the strictures of her time, she makes friends with poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, finds her way to London and eventually travels the world, all the while seeking to solve the mystery of her parentage. With fierce determination and irrepressible spirits, Eliza carves out a life full of adventure and artistic endeavor.”

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility has a back-story most ripe for exploration: from Colonel Brandon’s first love, to that girl’s trials living with and being abused by the elder Brandon and her fall into prostitution, to Eliza Williams’s seduction and abandonment by Willoughby. Frankly, it’s all a little confusing, which might explain why for the first 30 or so pages of Eliza’s Daughter, I wasn’t sure which tragic female Aiken was writing about. Was the Eliza of the title Colonel Brandon’s first love or his niece and ward or the offspring of Willoughby’s treachery? Was Aiken going to show Willoughby’s seduction and the fallout from that? The answers, I discovered, were no, no and kind of.

Eliza Williams is the illegitimate daughter of Colonel Brandon’s niece and ward, Eliza Williams (another reason for the confusion; seriously, why didn’t Aiken give the child a different name?) and Willoughby. The novel opens with the young Eliza romping and playing in Byblow Bottom, a small hamlet on the border of Somerset and Devon, whose primary industry was wet-nursing the children, legitimate and illegitimate, of the upper classes. She grows up there neglected by indifference not due to the fact that she is illegitimate, but because she isn’t an illegitimate daughter of means. She does not know who her parents are, and it is this lack of knowledge that drives her for the entire book.

Joan Aiken must have hated Sense and Sensibility. Her interpretation of the source characters is so different from this reader’s that it was like reading original characters entirely. None of the original characters have the happily ever after you assume occurs at the end of Sense and Sensibility. Edward is embittered by poverty, resentful of being beholden to Colonel Brandon (and of Brandon’s relative wealth), and so frugal that he angers when a bottle of wine is opened to help revive his sick wife. Elinor has lost most of the inner fortitude that characterized her in Sense and Sensibility, strength that would be necessary to live with this obstinate version of Edward. Marianne has only a small part in the novel, but when she does appear, she is selfish, cold, and insensible of other people’s feelings. Even poor Margaret, who has only a small part in the original, is described as: “a dark, intense-looking lady of, I suppose, twenty-seven years; her features were too lumpy and irregular for her ever to have been considered handsome…there was something whimsical, freakish, over-emotional about her which made me slightly mistrust her; I thought she looked unreliable.” In fact, the only original character that comes across with any sympathy at all is Mrs. Dashwood, and she is sympathetic only because she is senile.

Of the Aiken sequels that I’ve read, this was the most interesting because it delved into an aspect of Regency life – illegitimacy – that Austen only alludes to. Like any good tragic heroine, Eliza’s life is not easy, but her intelligence, common sense and resiliency see her through. However, this novel would have been much more enjoyable if it had been an original story instead of piggybacking on Sense and Sensibility. For all the similarities the original characters have to Austen’s creations it might as well be an original. One aspect of the ending was somewhat startling from its unexpectedness, but despite these quibbles, the story of Eliza and her ability to survive despite numerous disadvantages is one I would recommend.