Eliza’s Daughter

Eliza’s Daughter by Joan Aiken

There seems to be a trend in some Austen-based work, I’ve noticed, in which the heroine finds happiness at the end not by marrying her proper companion and intellectual and moral equal, but by writing novels.

So much happens in Aiken’s book about the life of Eliza Williams, the daughter of Eliza, the daughter of the love of Colonel Brandon who was forced to marry his abusive older brother, that I’m hardly ruining the story for you by revealing one part of the resolution. Indeed, there is almost a whirlwind of run-ins with our former acquaintances (Elinor and Edward, Sir John Middleton, the evil Ferrars—Robert and Lucy, Mrs. Dashwood, Meg Dashwood, Marianne, Willoughby) as young Eliza makes her way through the world, figuring out who her parents are, and doing her best to do what’s right for people she recognizes as good.

That turns out to be quite a few people. Eliza becomes a point of light and hope for men, women, and children in nearly all walks of life and successfully defends her honor and her safety from multiple threats.

Her story begins in her childhood in a poor neighborhood where many bastard children are being raised in foster homes. She has a delightful surprise encounter with two young men, around 1798, mind you, whom she calls Mr. Will and Mr. Sam. They speak to each other and to her in poetry that sounds different from any she (or the world, as it turns out) has heard before. As soon as I realized what was happening, I immediately looked for clues in every other detail. Could the woman watching the birds in the remote natural location and predicting the start of a new era be Dorothy?

Alas, she is someone new to us, and the new era is the returning to her of her own child, whose life is about to be saved by the quick wit of her babysitter/guardian of sorts, Eliza, whose extra finger may deny her a husband but currently grants her the respect of Gypsies to whom the child has been sold.

Confused? Aiken achieves here not only beautiful, descriptive writing and a compelling story, but also a fascinating melding of fictional and nonfictional people. In addition to the founders of Romantic poetry, Aiken gives us one version of Mrs. Leigh-Perrot’s story in the fictional character of Mrs. Jebb, in whose home Eliza stays while studying and teaching music in Bath. And the entirely fictional characters are beautifully developed, too, from the Duke, who loved Eliza’s mother so dearly he invites her child to live with him, platonically, and be his ward of sorts, to Hoby, Eliza’s childhood friend and now a somebody; from Lady Hariot and Therese, the mysterious woman and devoted child, to Eliza’s devoted maid, Pullett who survives a potentially fatal sea mishap.

Nothing ends as I thought it would, and though I wasn’t thrilled with the disappointing ends most of our Sense and Sensibility friends come to, I could hardly stop reading. Not bad for a sequel, I think.

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Published in: on May 31, 2009 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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