One of the things I like most about Jane Austen is that there are no anonymous Red-Shirts in her books. Even the most fleeting of supporting characters hint at great stories untold, entire life stories somehow conveyed in the flick of a fan or the swish of a skirt. One of the most intriguing of these for me is Jane Fairfax, the heroine's unwitting rival in Emma. Jane's life was barely penciled in, but enough information was there to make me curious. I always wished Austen had done a separate book for Fairfax. But as she is currently rolling around in her grave in response to horrors like this, Joan Aiken bravely took on the challenge.
Jane Fairfax is an orphan who lives sometimes with her grandmother and spinster aunt, and sometimes with wealthier friends of her family who took her on as a companion for their daughter. She is seen as a charity case, living largely off of Emma Woodhouse's family. She is also loved and admired for her beauty, natural elegance, and musical talent. As she travels with her plain, timid companion, Rachel, she is constantly in the difficult position of putting Rachel forward, trying to place herself in the shadows, as she cannot go on with her own life until Rachel is married. This situation is compounded by rumors of non-existent dowries, which have suitors throwing themselves at her feet, and she must continually turn them back toward Rachel. This becomes especially difficult when she finally falls in love with one of these suitors, who does marry Rachel in the end, leaving Jane heartbroken. Frank Churchill is there to mend her heart, and though she's unsure of her feelings, Jane agrees to a secret engagement, essential for Frank's potential inheritance. In order to throw gossips off the scent Frank pretends to court Emma, making life even more difficult for Jane as she continues to struggle with her feelings for her lost love and must face Emma's visits and snide remarks.
I haven't read Emma in awhile, but I feel Aiken did an excellent job staying true to that story and all the events and characters therein. Her writing is not identical to Austen's, but it's a good try. While Austen's writing is a perfect balance of lightness and language, Aiken's is heavy. She does an excellent job building on Austen's characters without turning them into caricatures. The only problem with this is that when thrown into a bright light, a lesser character is often shown to be exactly that after all. In Emma, Frank was sexy and unreliable. In Jane Fairfax, he somehow became a golden retriever, the sexiness a ruse to distract Emma and other gossips. Golden retrievers are great dogs, but you wouldn't want to marry one. Also, for a romance to be good, the heroine can really only ever truly love one man, and Aiken couldn't quite conquer that obstacle, so Jane's romance with Frank just doesn't satiate the reader. He comes out as quite the second banana, albeit the second banana who got the girl. Jane, however, was done perfectly.
Aiken has another book called Mansfield Revisited. My mom just read it and tells me the hero of that story turns out much like Frank Churchill. That's a disappointment, but not enough of one to keep me from revisiting some of my favorite characters.