This is our first post for the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge.
And while we’re celebrating the S&S bicentenary, don’t forget the Twitter tag: #sns200
The late author Joan Aiken was best known for her alliteratively-named children’s books, such as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (wonder where she got that name) and Black Hearts at Battersea. We enjoyed these books immensely as a Young Person and a few years later was delighted to find Miss Aiken had produced more grown-up fare, namely Victorian-set Gothic novels.* We also have read a couple of her Austen-related books as well, and found them fair to middling. Thus, we approached Eliza’s Daughter with some hope of finding at least a well-written tale, and possibly something quite enjoyable, but more often found ourself wondering why Miss Aiken hated Sense and Sensibility so much. Or if not the book, at least she must have been seriously displeased with the characters, because she pretty much backed up the failboat and herded them all aboard; except of course for the title character, who not only was beautiful but could sing at a professional level, scramble herself against all odds into an extensive education that included the ability to speak several languages, rescue kidnapped children from the gypsies, dowse for water (we are so not making that up), and dispatch a villain bent on robbery and murder with a knife concealed in her boot. Even Mr. Darcy would have to admit Eliza the Youngest was a very accomplished woman, we think.
But we get ahead of ourself a bit. Eliza’s Daughter is the story of, well, Eliza’s daughter; meaning the daughter of the Eliza seduced and abandoned by Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. The daughter, also named Eliza, because that isn’t at all confusing, is told her mother died at her birth, which is possible from what we know–the last we hear of Eliza Williams in S&S, she has retired to the country in expectation of her confinement, and we are not told if she delivered it safely or even the child’s sex. When we first meet Eliza III, she has been left in a village known as Byblow Bottom, as the inhabitants have set up a cottage industry rearing the natural children of rich men. Do not imagine a pastoral of good-hearted country people giving these unfortunate children as many advantages as they can to make their own way in an uncertain world. Instead the children are raised in poverty, ignorance, and vice, and Aiken even tosses in an implication of sexual abuse, which Eliza, the narrator, mentions and then quickly prims up about. (Jane Austen would have called that a violation of the rules of composition, we think. You don’t throw out something like that in the middle of a story and then ignore it.) We find it difficult to believe that Colonel Brandon, having learned quite a lesson with his own ward, would have not kept a better eye on things.
Indeed poor Colonel Brandon comes off shockingly bad, though he is never seen in person. Brandon, we are told, repurchases his commission and goes junketing off with the future Duke of Wellington, taking the childless Marianne with him, failing to make provisions either for Eliza’s upkeep or that of his own estate. Eliza, after some misadventures in Bath, makes her way to Delaford, where she finds the village neglected and the rector and his wife—Mr. and Mrs. Edward Ferrars, of course—living in miserable poverty, as Brandon’s lawyers have no instructions to provide funds for the running of the estate. This, quite simply, would not have happened. Colonel Brandon was a man of honor and understood his responsibilities. He took care of his Eliza and her daughter, and would take care of Eliza the Younger’s child as well; and he would have understood the sacred duty and responsibility that came to him with the Delaford estate. We are told, in Sense and Sensibility, that Colonel Brandon’s brother had left the estate sadly involved; Brandon would have worked to clear the estate, not to enrich himself, but because, as a landowner, he had a duty to the people who worked on that estate and who depended upon it for their livelihood. His duty to his country lay not with the Army but with Delaford. In Jane Austen’s eyes—and let us please remember that Colonel Brandon was created by Jane Austen—an honorable man would have taken that duty seriously, and we suggest that, as Jane Austen created him, Colonel Brandon was an honorable man. We further suggest that Aiken, in failing to understand that or at least in failing to include that in her story, did not only a disservice to her readers but to the original novel as well.
Our lovely, heroic Elinor is worn down into a shadow by making do with nothing and living with a husband who turned from a funny, shy, honorable man into an angry, puritanical jerk incapable of anything like compassion, let alone affection for his long-suffering wife. Elinor, perhaps, comes off better than any of the other “original” characters, though she has still become a poor honey who lives in fear of her husband’s rage. Mrs. Dashwood has become senile and raves about birds in cages, no doubt meant allegorically. Indeed there is a distinct flavor of Woman Good, Man Bad throughout this work, which after a while becomes annoying. She might never have found one good enough to marry, but Jane Austen definitely did not hate men.
Even so, Marianne comes out worst of all. We are told she keeps her husband from seeing or taking care of the youngest Eliza, because she is a reminder to Marianne of her father, for whom Mrs. Brandon still carries a torch; when we meet her, at the end of the novel, she is cold and selfish and spoilt. Poor Marianne, who could never love by halves!
Willoughby, perhaps, gets what he deserves; but by the time we meet with him, we found ourself unable to much care.
Bits of Jane Austen’s own biography are brought in: one character goes through a trial for stealing lace, like Jane’s aunt, and is suspected of a streak of kleptomania, as some scholars have implied about Mrs. Leigh Perrot; and one of the Byblow Bottom children is not a natural child, but was the squire’s legitimate daughter, sent out to be nursed until she could walk and talk, like the Austen children themselves. These bits don’t really help the story along, nor do they (as perhaps intended) add legitimacy to the book. But they are there, and we recognized them, and do not feel especially clever about it.
Now that we have spoken of Sense, Sensibility must come into play. If one can divorce oneself entirely from the original, throw off affection and attachment as, say, Lucy Steele threw off Edward Ferrars, Eliza’s Daughter is an enjoyable piece of historical fiction by an experienced author: dense, meaty, chewy, with plenty of drama, adventure, and period detail. If one is untroubled by severe digressions from the original (or if one has not read the original at all, in which case, why haven’t you, for pity’s sake?), one might get great enjoyment out of Eliza’s Daughter. It is, perhaps, our own failing that we were not able to do so; or perhaps just that we love Sense and Sensibility too much to permit it.
*Seriously, if you can track down a copy of Castle Barebane, it’s a real page-turner; we first read it as a teenager, and re-reading it as an adult realized it owes a large debt to Edith Wharton, but it’s still a pretty good read.
Read MJ Ryan’s review of this book, published previously on AustenBlog; we find ourself in complete agreement with everything MJ wrote, including not being sure which Eliza was which for the first couple of chapters. If that was purposeful, we’re not sure what to think; that sort of thing worked for Faulkner, but is a bit much for Austen paralit.
Disclaimer: we downloaded the ebook for free as part of Sourcebooks’ Jane Austen’s Birthday offer in December 2010.