I’m a small person sometimes. Maybe I’m a small person most of the time; I’m not sure. But I went into this book predisposed to not liking it. Why, might you ask? Well for starters, I generally don’t like follow-on books about peripheral characters. I mean, they’re peripheral. You’re not supposed to care what they do or why. Second, I generally don’t care for books that are a series of letters. It’s just too difficult to develop characters well and keep me interested. And third, and this is where I divulge my smallness, the book was written by Jane Austen’s distant relation (like Jane’s greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreat niece or something similar), who STILL keeps the “Austen” name. And it just felt to me like a crutch and that I should be wary of it lacking in real artistic talent and that was the only way she could publish.

Well, shame on me, to both. I really enjoyed A Visit to Highbury: Another View of Emma, due in large part to vivid characterizations and real, honest-to-goodness writing of which Jane herself would have approved.

I was hooked from the first letter. The book is a series of letters between two sisters: Mrs. Pinkney (new to the Emma world) and Mrs. Goddard who, as some of you may recall, was Harriet Smith’s school mistress. In the original, Mrs. Goddard never had dialog, but it was made clear that she had some standing in the community, was a friend of Emma’s father, and was generally well-involved in Highbury.

The sisters need to catch up after a long period of slothful correspondence and Mrs. Goddard begins to tell Mrs. Pinkney all of the goings on of Highbury life. Of course, there has to be some rather blatant contrivances to make the dialog go back and forth. A few examples: Mrs. Pinkney’s husband’s apothecary is the very same one that Emma’s sister, Mrs. John Knightley uses for her family in London. Thus Mrs. Pinkney can report on the Knightleys of London. Or Mrs. Pinkney runs into Mr. Elton in Bath on his wife-hunting trip. And so forth. But for all of that, Ms. Austen-Leigh delightfully wraps both Mrs. Pinkney’s London world and Mrs. Goddard’s Highbury world together, giving some well-thought out explanations and insights into the major characters of Highbury. One of my favorite examples, despite how I dislike Harriet Smith, is more knowledge of the Martin family, since the sisters met Harriet while attending Mrs. Goddard’s school. Another wonderful insight is into the fall of Mrs. and Miss Bates in society and poverty.

There is only as much insight into Emma and Knightley as is realistic for two sisters really unrelated to their romance can be. And that is disappointing on the one hand but very appropriate and satisfying on the other.

Sadly, this book did not feed my thirst for plausible explanations of why George Knightley would fall in love with selfish, immature little Emma. But I don’t suppose that Ms. Austen-Leigh set out to do so. In the mean time, I enjoyed enlarging my perspective of Highbury and will have to wait until someone else can try to pen an explanation to this mystery.

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