If you've read the book, or seen one of the two film adaptations, Jane Austen's Emma may have left you wondering about the other Jane. Jane Fairfax, the lovely, accomplished, often ill, and mostly silent woman of little means, takes center stage in Jeanette Watts' new novel My Dearest Miss Fairfax. In Austen's world, Jane serves as a foe to pot-stirring heroine Emma Woodhouse, who continually compares herself to Jane and comes up wanting in all areas but wealth. If, like me, you've often wondered what Jane Fairfax was thinking as she sat playing the pianoforte, Watts delivers this and more.
Revealing "the story behind the story," of, spoiler alert, Jane Fairfax's secret engagement to Frank Churchill, My Dearest Miss Fairfax sets out to explore whether or not love "can withstand the pressure" of said secret engagement. And while this will they/won't they arc keeps the pages turning, in the end it is, for this reviewer, secondary to the complex character development and larger questions of a woman's value the novel reveals.
We find Jane Fairfax to be a compelling and more relatable protagonist because of the challenging circumstances that continue to shape her, and the keen wit and biting tongue with which she sees and speaks. Her silence, it turns out, is more a defense against betraying her secret, rather than the result of innate humility. Her continued episodes of unwellness, Fairfax fans will be happy to learn, more diversion from the unwanted company of Highbury's gossip-minded residents than foreshadowing of an acute future illness.
The poor orphaned daughter of a soldier raised by his dutiful and kind former commander of means, Jane is that rare and dangerous combination of education and limited circumstances. Raised to question and learn but having no fortune of her own, she is destined for the role of governess, where she will pass on knowledge and skills to wealthy girls, who themselves will face limited and limiting opportunities once they reach adulthood. Jane's frustration is palpable. She is driven by the desire for a life of quality beyond dowries and well-made matches.
Image courtesy of Jeanette Watts.
Frank Churchill, who you may remember, callously uses and discards Emma Woodhouse's affections as a temporary cover for said secret engagement. Like Jane, he re-emerges in Watts' novel with far more dimension and complexity. And, like Jane, he is trapped by a generous benefactor who has raised him into a limited upward mobility that comes with a price of its own. To put it plainly, he is not much freer than Jane Fairfax herself.
And if I continue circling back to comparisons, it is because the world of My Dearest Miss Fairfax is literally built upon them. Who is the true and deserving heroine? Jane or Emma? Whose is the better match? The monetary based matrimony of the Eltons? The loving and companionable life of the Campbells, who had enough means to educate and care for Jane, but not nearly enough to garner her independence or a desirable, upwardly-mobile match?
And how do Frank and Jane compare to Emma and Knightly, who are drawn here in a much darker light? Was Frank and Jane's dishonesty a necessary evil to find happiness outside of their limited options? And does that make it forgivable?
When I began My Dearest Miss Fairfax I thought I knew what to expect. A clever diversion, a comfortable, well-written and easy-consumed read. But happily, I was wrong. There is much to chew on here in this considerable feast. If you haven't yet read Austen's source material, I suggest you do. It will greatly enrich your experience of Watt's novel.
Jeanette Watt's does not merely write about life and literature in Georgian era Britain. She lives it. A quick dip into Google reveals Watt's passion for historical dance, one which drives her descriptions as well as the dance classes she teaches. And this level of author immersion translates into a prose style that feels natural to the time without being awkward or self-conscious.
In less capable hands, an attempt at this kind of literary spin-off would have been far less successful. Watts' significant understanding of Georgian era literary and cultural history, coupled with her insights into the less than romantic realities her characters inhabit make her a natural twenty-first century heir to the Austenverse. From moments of escape into seaside strolls and elegant balls, to uncompromising critiques of Georgian era values, My Dearest Miss Fairfax is the smart girl's summer read.
Other works by Jeanette Watts include Brains and Beauty, Wealth and Privilege, A Woman's Persuasion, and Jane Austen Lied to Me.