The Watsons in Winter: Catherine Hubback
By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2014 02:00PM
The first-ever completion of Jane Austen’s fragment The Watsons – Catherine Hubback’s 1850 novel The Younger Sister, the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series – occupies a special place in Janeite lore. It is the first published Austen fan fiction, the founding mother of a genre whose exemplars now fill groaning shelves in bookstores everywhere.
Because Hubback was Jane Austen’s niece, albeit too young to have known Austen personally, it’s also tempting to speculate that Hubback's completion incorporates what older relatives told her about Austen’s own plans for her unfinished story. And aside from its historical interest, Hubback’s book is solidly entertaining in its own right: not as good as Jane Austen, of course (what is?), but an often well-written, middle-brow Victorian novel.
It’s truly a shame, then, that most Janeites currently have little chance of reading The Younger Sister in its entirety.* Long out of print, the book apparently now exists only in the collections of seven libraries: one in Australia, two in the United States, and four in Great Britain. One of the American libraries does not make its copy available for interlibrary loan, leaving a single copy to circulate among all American Janeites who may wish to read it.
In the age of Google Books, the solution to this problem seems obvious, and, indeed, the first two volumes of Hubback’s three-volume novel – each more than three hundred octavo pages long – have for years been available on line, in digital copies made from the edition owned by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.
But not the third volume. “Unfortunately when volume 3 reached the scanning room it was found to be too fragile for scanning,” a Bodleian representative informed me via email last year. (Buyers, beware: a past Amazon offering purporting to be volume III is apparently volume II.)
Consequently, I have not yet been able to read the end of Hubback’s novel. Volume II finishes on a cliffhanger – will plucky, virtuous Emma Watson escape the clutches of smooth, seductive Mr. Morgan, whose intentions seem distinctly dishonorable? – and the happy ending remains just over the horizon. It's a frustrating roadblock for anyone interested in the history of Watsons continuations.
Catherine Anne Austen Hubback (1818-77), the daughter of Jane Austen’s beloved older brother Francis, was born a year too late to meet her most famous relative. Growing up, she was close to her surviving aunt, Cassandra, who used to read aloud to her from Austen’s novels – and, apparently, from her unpublished fragments.
In her early twenties, Catherine Austen married John Hubback, a rising barrister, and soon had three young boys. But six years into the marriage, disaster struck: John suffered an irretrievable mental breakdown, attributed by his family to overwork. Before his oldest son’s sixth birthday, he was confined to an asylum, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Catherine Hubback and her little boys moved back in with her father and his second wife, Jane Austen’s old friend Martha Lloyd. For Catherine, her husband's catastrophic illness “was the major traumatic event of her life, quenching the springs of gaiety within her,” her oldest son wrote years later. (I owe most of these biographical details to a new book, Sara Wheeler’s O My America! Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World, which takes Hubback as one of its subjects.)
As a child, Hubback had enjoyed writing and drawing, and in the wake of her husband's illness, casting about for a way to support her children in a world that offered middle-class women few opportunities for respectable employment, she found inspiration in her aunt’s unfinished story about Emma Watson and her family.
The manuscript itself was no longer at hand – on her death in 1845, Cassandra Austen had left it to her brother James’ daughter Caroline, who had known Jane Austen – but Hubback remembered it with preternatural clarity: the early pages of The Younger Sister follow The Watsons scene by scene, almost line by line.
Hubback correctly remembers the names of almost every important character and reproduces a host of Austen’s incidental details – the roast turkey the Watsons serve at a family dinner, the gloves Lord Osborne pretends to mislay at the ball, the curl papers Mary Edwards is wearing in her hair when Emma Watson meets her for the first time.
(Although Hubback’s book is dedicated to the memory of Jane Austen “by the authoress who, though too young to have known her personally, was from childhood taught to esteem her virtues and admire her talents,” Hubback nowhere mentions that its first 128 pages are largely based on Austen’s fragment, which would not be published for another 21 years. All’s fair in love and literature, I guess.)
Even after her story moves on from Austen’s beginning, Hubback displays a knack for Austenesque lines (“Lord Osborne, like many other people, might depreciate himself – but he could not wish his friends to take the same view of the subject”), and some of her characters amusingly recall Austenian progenitors: a Mr. Watson with a flash of Mr. Bennet’s dry wit, a Miss Carr whose catty efforts to undermine a romantic rival owe something to Caroline Bingley.
The book’s energy begins to flag in volume II, when the orphaned Watson sisters move in with their brother’s family in Croydon and Hubback abandons some of Austen’s characters in favor of a host of new ones, including a widower with an eye for Emma’s older sister Elizabeth, the widower's exuberantly jokey younger half-sister, and the aforementioned dangerous smoothie.
Inevitably, Hubback is no Jane Austen. The quality of her writing is sometimes uneven, and she lacks her aunt’s gift for economical story-telling. Hubback’s book periodically bogs down in longish descriptive passages or unnecessarily detailed parsing of characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Her Emma sometimes threatens to become a bit of a prig, with tiresomely high principles (“She never allowed jesting on the topic of matrimony”) and a defensive tendency to anticipate condescension from her social superiors. Clearly, Hubback’s sensibility owes more to her strait-laced Victorian era than to Austen’s rather more irreverent Regency.
Still, Hubback’s book is far from dull, and perhaps because of her own bitter life experience, she manages to capture something of the bleak desperation that is the keynote of Austen’s fragment. For readers who know something of Hubback’s own struggles, it’s hard not to be moved by passages like this one, describing Emma Watson in the wake of her father’s death: “She was learning to see life, its duties, and its trials, in a new light; she discovered that suffering was not an accidental circumstance, like a transitory illness, to be cured and forgotten as soon as possible; it was the condition of life itself – peace was the exception – and she had enjoyed her share; henceforth, she must look forward to trial and endurance, she must struggle as millions had struggled before her, and learn to draw contentment not from circumstances but from temper of mind.”
The Younger Sister was the first of ten novels that Catherine Hubback wrote as her sons grew up; she achieved modest success as one of a flock of Victorian lady novelists, the equivalent of today’s popular romance-novel writers, whose work was beloved by common readers, disdained by critics and forgotten by posterity.
It’s pleasing to know that Hubback apparently found some happiness in later life, when she moved, in her fifties, to northern California, to keep house for her middle son. From her base in Oakland, she traveled extensively around the state, penning informative, sharply observant letters to family back home in England, before dying of pneumonia at age fifty-eight.
Here’s hoping that 2014 brings us a digital copy of volume III of The Younger Sister, a belated stocking-stuffer for Janeites everywhere.
Catherine Anne Austen Hubback. The Younger Sister. London: T.C. Newby, 1850.
* But see this update from June 2014 for welcome news.
so interesting article!!!!!!!!! i thank you for write about the younger sister
could you give me summary of that novel ? i will like to know if is not sad story or happy ?
You're very welcome -- thanks for reading! I still haven't finished it, so I can't tell you for sure if it's got a happy ending. . .