The final instalment of the Highbury trilogy, Dear Jane narrates the history of Jane Fairfax, recounting the events hinted at but never actually described in Jane Austen’s Emma.
Orphaned Jane seems likely to be brought up in parochial Highbury until adoption by her papa’s old friend Colonel Campbell opens to her all the excitement and opportunities of London. The velvet path of her early years is finite, however and tarnished by the knowledge that she must earn her own independence one day.
Frank Weston is also transplanted from Highbury, adopted as heir to the wealthy Churchills and taken to their drear and inhospitable Yorkshire estate. The glimmer of the prize which will one day be his is all but obliterated by the stony path he must walk to claim it.
Their paths – the velvet and the stony - meet at Weymouth and readers of Emma will be familiar with the finale of Jane and Frank’s story. Dear Jane pulls back the veil which Jane Austen drew over their early lives, their meeting in Weymouth and the agony of their secret engagement.
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Lady Sowerby was an extremely aged lady, very splendidly dressed, lustrous with the diamonds which she had managed to keep from her creditors’ grasp. Her hair was abundant, very becomingly arranged and altogether artificial. Her wrinkled face was hardly enhanced by a lavish and not very skilfully applied layer of powder and rouge in a style prevalent with fashionable ladies fifty years previously.
‘Mama,’ said Lady Knox, surveying the old lady with a critical eye. ‘Have you emptied your jewel box? You quite dazzle me.’ She fingered her own necklace, a rope of glossy pearls, and threw a significant glance at Mrs Campbell, who wore no ornaments at all. ‘It may well be that I am out of step with current fashion,’ she observed, ‘but I think it is not quite polite to outshine so very significantly one’s hostess and all one’s fellow guests.’
‘I pay no heed to fashion,’ the lady sniped. She looked witheringly at the company before beckoning Jane and Rowena forward. She looked each up and down with minute attention. ‘I know something about young ladies,’ she said at last, ‘I have not brought up three of my own to be ignorant of their manipulative ways, tantrums and tricks, and I think I am a good judge of quality, too. Hum. Most unlike,’ she said. ‘One has got all the other’s share of beauty.’ She gave Jane a piercing look. ‘You have more beauty in your little finger than your sister has in her whole person. But has she got all of your wit? I wonder if you think you have the better of the bargain. Well, looks are a very great thing when you are young, but an old woman with no beauty and no wit is a sad creature indeed.’
‘You would know,’ muttered Mr Dixon, ‘insufferable old crone.’ He gathered his sons to him and distracted them from Jane and Rowena’s discomfort by pointing at something through the window.
Jane glanced at Mrs Campbell. Patently Lady Sowerby had misunderstood her position in the family. It was not uncommon – generally a slight hint from Mrs Campbell or the colonel was enough to set matters straight. But the Campbells were not minded to give Lady Sowerby the benefit of a timely word and when Jane followed their glance, she knew why. Rowena’s eyes were fixed on the carpet at her feet, her hands trembled as she clasped them tightly before her. A tear fell from her eye and landed with a splash on the toe of her slipper. Jane reached out and took Rowena’s hand tenderly.
‘We believe our girls equally blessed in both, ma’am. We make no comparison.’ Mrs Campbell said stiffly, putting one arm around each of them.
‘Comparisons are odious,’ Lady Knox agreed, giving her mother a sharp look.
‘You are blind, then,’ Lady Sowerby remarked, giving no indication of having heard her daughter. ‘But I shall be the judge of it. You will both play and sing after dinner, and recite some verse. A competition, what say you?’
Rowena looked aghast at Mrs Campbell. ‘Oh, mama, I cannot… Please do not…’
‘Come, come now,’ Lady Sowerby said with a cackle, ‘I conjecture you spend your days with music teachers and the like. What for, if not for this? A girl must be ready to display her accomplishments, must she not? The boys will ride their ponies for you, and shoot their arrows and all manner of derring-do to exhibit their prowess? How will you answer them, if not in musical proficiency and song?’
‘We ride and shoot for our own entertainment, Great-Grandmamma,’ Patrick, the second Dixon boy, said bravely. ‘These young ladies have no need to exert themselves for our benefit.’ He threw Rowena a look loaded with sympathy and kindness.
‘They will exert themselves for mine, then,’ Lady Sowerby replied. ‘I insist on being entertained and I will satisfy myself as to these girls’ merits. It may well be for your benefit, young sir. You would not wish to have a wife, be she ever so beautiful, if she is as vacuous and dull as an empty room when this one,’ she waved a claw-like hand at Rowena, ‘could be all wit and cleverness beneath that dowdy exterior.’
‘You will excuse us, ma’am,’ Mrs Campbell said. ‘The girls are tired after their journey and will retire as soon as we have dined.’ She guided Jane and Rowena to another part of the room. The colonel followed, leaving Lord and Lady Knox as Lady Sowerby’s sole attendants.