Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation (Warleigh Hall Press Jane Austen)

Written by Alice McVeigh
Review by Misty Urban

This Jane Austen retelling stays charmingly true to Emma in character and, most impressively, in voice.

Despite the title, the novel is only partly about Harriet Smith, the Highbury orphan in whom Emma Woodhouse takes an improving interest. Though she fondly recalls her summer spent with the farming Martin family, Harriet hopes Emma’s patronage will elevate her circumstances, and her dewy-eyed, dippy manner is a shrewd act. These chapters offer an intriguing study in Emma’s personality as Harriet accurately detects the other girl’s motives and impulses. While Harriet is too canny and self-interested to completely win the reader, it’s hilarious to see her play along with Emma’s attempts to matchmake her with the self-important Mr. Elton.

More absorbing and poignant are the trials of Jane Fairfax, another genteel orphan who is sensitive, proud, reserved, and tormented by a secret. Her attachment to Frank Churchill is deep and sincere, formed during a holiday in Weymouth, but when they contrive to meet up in Highbury, the feckless Frank’s flirtations with others wound Jane deeply. Meanwhile, no one can guess where the desirable Mr. Knightley’s affections tend, though he plays an important if enigmatic role.

The familiar action has a fresh appeal when seen from these new perspectives, as if revealing deeper layers to much-loved characters. The action is firmly rooted in Austen’s world, with appearances by the Crawfords of Mansfield Park and references to McVeigh’s Susan. The greatest achievement is how well McVeigh nails Austen’s voice—not just her style and turns of phrase but her droll insight into character and her vast, yet gentle amusement at human foible. As close to the original as it is possible to get, McVeigh is a gift for those of us who will never tire of Austenland.