Thursday, February 13, 2014

Book Review: A Visit to Highbury and Later Days at Highbury by Joan Austen-Leigh

    Rare indeed is the Austen sequel that lives up to the original work. I’ve already praised Sanditon and Letters from Pemberley, but there is no fitter person to write a sequel than one of Jane’s own descendants. Joan Austen-Leigh’s continuation of Emma, one of the most beloved Austen novels, does justice to the original while expanding on characters we heard little from in the book.

     Like Letters, both books are epistolary novels. Mrs. Goddard and her newly married sister Mrs. Pinkney exchange letters regarding the events in their lives. In the first novel, Mrs. Pinkney is unhappy with her new marriage and writing to her elder sister for relief. Mrs. Goddard responds with news of Highbury, such as her parlour boarder Harriet Smith making friends with the great lady of the town, Emma Woodhouse…

     We see the events play out from Mrs. Goddard’s viewpoint, at least as far as she can see. Some points stretch credulity, but one can chalk it up to small-town gossip and Mrs. Goddard having excellent observation skills after running a school for so long. The familiar plotline makes it comfortable to read while the new elements make it different enough to prevent it from being a mere re-read.

     In Later Days at Highbury, the sisters continue their correspondence, with some additions. Mrs. Pinkney’s marriage has improved, and Mr. Pinkney’s niece has been sent from the West Indies to attend the fashionable school next door, much to her misery. Meanwhile, Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Bates have finally passed, bringing great changes to Highbury, and Miss Bates has left to live with the Churchhills, though Mrs. Goddard is concerned that she will miss all her friends. Mrs. Goddard acquires two new parlour boarders, sisters who greatly resemble the Musgroves (they’re called Ludgrove) from Persuasion, and decides to try her own hand at matchmaking…

     While not as tightly plotted as the first, it’s still an interesting read. Austen-Leigh takes elements from several other novels (such as the Louisa plotline) and weaves them nicely into the fabric of the story. She also gives us a view of what she thinks the future marriages from the original novel are like. Clearly the Knightleys are all that they promised to be; and the while the Churchhill marriage seems happy, Frank himself hasn’t changed much at all.

     Overall these are both pleasant reads that re-introduce a familiar setting while still keeping the readers attention.

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