Eliza’s Daughter: A Sequel to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, by Joan Aiken – A Review

Eliza's Daughter (2008)As to my own progenitors, I held only the vaguest and scantiest notion. My mother, I was given to understand, had died in giving birth to me; and this (I was also given to understand) was the greatest piece of mercy that she might have hoped for, since she had run away from her friends at the age of sixteen, and had been heartlessly abandoned at seventeen by her seducer. And who might he have been? was the question over which I pondered for many, many hours of my childhood…as I walked alone in the mist over Brendon Hills. Eliza Williams, Chapter 1 

Have you ever read a totally unfavorable book review so full of acrimony that it left you wondering if you would have the same reaction? I have, and am often hooked into trying out a book to see if I agree. So when I read a collection of reviews gathered at the Austenfans website against Joan Aiken’s novel Eliza’s Daughter : A Sequel to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I was intrigued. Here are a few of the zingers to set the mood. “It is the worst JA sequel I have ever read”, “I wonder why ANYONE would have bothered to write something like this!”, “I cannot recommend this book, except as an example of what NOT to do when writing a sequel to any great novel, especially Jane Austen.”, or the final insult, “How did it even get published?” Ouch! To add further to the mêlée, this website was created and is maintained by Sourcebooks, the current publisher of Eliza’s Daughter originally issued in 1984 and now available in a new edition. Cleverly, only a publisher of this depth and confidence would have the strength and wisdom to assemble such a collection of scathing reviews and post them as publicity. A blunder – or a stroke of marketing savvy? We shall see. 

Eliza's Daughter (1984)Originally published in 1994, Eliza’s Daughter continues the story of a very minor character in Sense and Sensibility who receives scant mention in the original novel as the illegitimate child of Eliza Williams and her seducer John Willoughby. The infant, also named Eliza Williams is placed by her guardian Colonel Brandon in the care of a negligent foster mother in the village of Byblow Bottom, an infamous Regency era repository for the natural offspring of public persons who were reared away from their parents to avoid disclosure of their existence. Raised in this rural backwater Eliza learns to survive under difficult circumstance and scrape together a bit of education, all the while trying to unravel the mystery of her parentage. Clever and creative, she knows by age twelve that education is the key to her survival and seeks out Colonel Brandon’s attorney’s and asks for their assistance while he is abroad serving in the army. They send her on to the Rev. Edward Ferrars and his wife Elinor nee Dashwood at Delaford. The Ferrars are living in genteel poverty as a country vicar and his wife with one daughter away at school and Elinor’s mother the once elegant Mrs. Dashwood now suffering from mental illness. Their acquaintance is strained and they decide to pack her off to school in Bath where their daughter Nell attends and Elinor’s younger sister Margaret Dashwood is a teacher. She is not very welcome there either, but she endures and excels in music having a gifted voice which brings her some attention. 

As the natural daughter of who knows whom, Eliza is definitely a social pariah and reminded of it with every connection and situation where she lives. The mystery of her parentage still lingers, but as the plot develops clues appear like bread crumbs along a trail bringing her closer to an answer by directing her to London and then on to Portugal. Ms. Aiken writes an engaging tale and knows how to keep our attention by a series of misadventures and recoveries by the heroine. We meet new characters as well who are interesting and authentic, but it is her treatment of Austen’s original characters that is troubling and forms the largest objection from all of the previous reviewers. 

When Austen’s novel concluded we were left with the happy thought that both Marianne and Elinor were married, their mother Mrs. Dashwood and younger sister Margaret are in better financial circumstances and the adversarial characters such as Lucy Steele, John Willoughby, and Mrs. Ferrars were much the worse for their life choices. So, as we read Eliza’s Daughter and discover that the happily-ever-after does not really exist beyond the last page of the original novel it is more than a bit unsettling. Colonel and Marianne Brandon are childless and have departed for India and show little if no interest in Eliza’s well being. This seems odd, since the Colonel has in the past always shown great concern for Eliza’s grandmother, mother and his friends. Elinor and Edward live a penurious and Spartan life eeking out an exsistence at Delaford. Edward is now a bitter man more concerned for his parishioners than his family and Elinor faintly the strong and wise woman that we knew from the past. Their only surviving child Nell is a pill, negligent of her familiar duties and callous to others feelings. Mrs. Dashwood was always a bit unfocused on reality, but now she is insane? Margaret Dashwood is a spinster working as a teacher then a companion? As one reviewer stated, “I found it to be so totally mean spirited toward all the characters we have come to know and love so dearly”, and I have to agree. In defense of Ms. Aiken’s choice of plot and character development, if everything was sunshine and syllabub, there would be nothing to write about, so in making Austen’s good guys the bad guys, she makes her heroine Eliza more pitiable and plucky, but at what cost? 

Reading the negative reviews in advance was really a gift leaving me with no expectation of liking this novel. In fact, I was strongly disposed to disapprobation myself, for what Janeite could condone such mistreatment of beloved characters? So I began with an entirely different objective in reading Eliza’s Daughter, not as an Austen sequel but as a Dickensian tale full of memorable characters, social corruption, sinister doings and a twisting plot – Eliza Williams has a Copperfieldish adventure – and as such, it became quite amusing. However, it could have been an even more enjoyable if Eliza had been allowed to have a few more positive friendships to support her along her journey as Mr. Dickens supplied David Copperfield with his endearing characters such as Peggoty, Mr. Barkis and Wilkins Micawber. Choosing to make Austen’s heroes and heroines the villains of this tale was a shocking and shallow choice. I may never forgive Ms. Aiken for striping away the tone and quality that Austen developed, but I will thank her for an inventive and engaging story that really had very little to do with what we experienced in Sense and Sensibility.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Regency Stars

Eliza’s Daughter: A Sequel to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibiliy
by Joan Aiken
Sourcebooks Landmark (2008)
ISBN: 978-1402212888

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Jane Austen Book Sleuth: New Books in the Queue for November 2008

Mr. Darcy's Daughter, by Rebecca Ann Collins (2008)The Austen book sleuth is happy to inform Janeites that Austen inspired books are heading our way in November, so keep your eyes open for these new titles. Next month’s edition of upcoming releases of Austen-esque books will include my selections of Jane Austen inspired holiday gift giving suggestions, so please check back on December 1st.

Mr. Darcy’s Daughter: The Pemberley Chronicles Book 5, by Rebecca Ann Collins. The Pemberley Chronicles continue as author Rebecca Ann Collins carries on the saga of the children of the Darcy’s and the Bingley’s as she focuses on the daughter of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy, the charming, beautiful and intelligent Cassandra. It is now 1864 and Cassandra Darcy must step forward and assist her family in the running of Pemberley after her willful brother Julian fails in his responsibilities as heir. “Mr. Darcy’s Daughter is the remarkable story of a strong-minded woman in a man’s world, struggling to balance the competing demands of love and duty as a daughter, wife, mother, and sister.” Sourcebooks Landmark, ISBN: 978-1402212208 

The Lost Years of Jane Austen: A Novel, by Barbara Ker Wilson. Even though every reasonable attempt to discover information about the content of this book has been conducted, the Austen book sleuth is still stumped. So we shall call it the mystery Austen book of the month and make a wild guess that it is a reprint of Barbara Ker Wilson’s 1984 novel, Jane in Australia in which Jane travels to Australia in 1803 with her aunt and uncle the Leigh Perrot’s. Sorry if my hunch is off, but if publisher’s wont’ give a description on their web site or answer polite inquires, we are left to the mercy of a good surmise. Ulysses Press, ISBN: 978-1569756928 

Eliza’s Daughter: A Sequel to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, by Joan Aiken. Did anyone catch that steamy opening scene in the Andrew Davies adaptation of Sense and Sensibility last spring on Masterpiece? If so, you might guess the parentage of the heroine Eliza Williams, but since she could not, she has no notion of who her father is or how she is connectioned to the kindly man who is her guardian, Colonel Brandon. Intelligent, creative and free-spirited, Eliza makes her way to London and into some of the fine intellectual and artistic circles with poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge eventually traveling the world, all the while seeking to solve the mystery of her parentage. My only hope is that she takes cousin Margaret Dashwood along on the adventure! Sourcebooks Landmark, ISBN: 978-1402212888 

Issues of Class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: (Social Issues in Literature), edited by Claudia L. Johnson. Jane Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet was a middle class gentleman’s daughter and hero Fitzwilliam Darcy was from the upper-class landed gentry. Ever wonder why only the rumor of their engagement provoked Lady Catherine to say “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”, and what it all meant? This book will definitely fill in the blanks with its numerous essays from prominent Austen and 18th-century scholars such as John Lauber, Marilyn Butler, Juliet McMaster, Emily Auerbach and Claudia Johnson. Written for high school level students, I am quite certain that older Janeites will find these insightful essays worthy of further study also. Greenhaven Press, ISBN: 978-0737742589 

Bloom’s How to Write about Jane Austen, by Catherine J. Kordich. The title of this one says it all, but here is my flip rhetorical question of the day. Since Jane Austen’s writing style is revered and worshiped by thousands (if not millions) including this blog mistress, who the heck would not want to know why her writing is so brilliant and be able to write about it??? Who indeed? I must confess that I could benefit from this book and hope to have a copy in hand shortly. Designed to help students (and blog mistresses) develop their analytical writing skills and critical comprehension, I know a few Austen friends who will smile at the title and snap it up in a heartbeat. Chelsea House (Facts on File, Inc.), 978-0791097434 

Life in the Country:  with quotations by Jane Austen and silhouettes by her Nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. Edited by Freydis Jane Welland and Eileen Sutherland, contributions by Maggie Lane and Joan Klingel Ray, afterword by Joan Austen-Leigh, designed by Robert R. Reid. Wow! The contributors to this book play out like the royal pedigree of Janedom! If you didn’t catch the connections, then I advise you to read the dust jacket flap. Suffice it to say, this is Jane Austen royalty rolling out the red carpet for our edification and enjoyment. The silhouettes are stunning, add to that well chosen Jane Austen quotes, a foreword from the editor, a family biography and an afterword by one of the creators of JASNA, and it does not get any better! Seek this one out and buy it. It is a gem. British Library, ISBN: 978-0712349857 

Until next month, happy reading to all! 

Laurel Ann