The Watsons in Winter: John Coates
By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 20 2014 02:00PM
Jane Austen was not perfect. Not every sentence that fell from her pen was a masterpiece; like all of us, she needed an editor’s eye from time to time. And the 17,000-plus words of The Watsons, the novel she abandoned a decade or more before her death, probably lack the layers of polish that her revisions would have applied.
But let’s face it: she was a genius, and when you edit genius – even unfinished genius -- you proceed with care. Unless you too are a genius, most of the time, your edits aren’t going to be improvements.
I couldn’t avoid these reflections as I made my way through John Coates’ 1958 continuation of The Watsons, the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series. Coates was a professional novelist and playwright, and his continuation is far from terrible. His grasp of pacing and characterization is much surer than that of some of his predecessors in the Watsons-continuation game.
But an avid Janeite can’t repress a momentary shock on reaching Coates’ afterword, in which he forthrightly admits, “I have altered the original fragment.” His goal, he explains, was to replace words whose meaning seemed obscure to modern ears; to introduce more wit and sparkle than Jane Austen’s original included; and to prune for length. The results show that Coates, while by no means a bad writer, just wasn’t a genius.
John Coates (1912-1963) grew up in England and France, studied English at Cambridge – he had been “a strong ‘Janeite’ since the age of fifteen,” the book jacket of The Watsons declares -- and traveled widely, settling in the Netherlands with his Dutch wife. The family, which eventually included four sons, left for England when World War II broke out, and Coates joined the British War Office.
Ensconced in London after the war, Coates achieved modest success as the author of a number of plays and eleven contemporary novels, in addition to his Watsons continuation. His untimely death came after what a publisher who recently reissued one of his books calls “a long illness.”
With only one major exception (no spoilers here!), the storyline of Coates’ Watsons continuation follows what are believed to have been Austen’s intentions. His heroine – renamed “Emily" Watson, presumably to avoid confusion with that other Emma W. – rejects one man and accepts another while her siblings pair off with assorted friends and neighbors.
Coates' sentences manage to sound Austen-ish much of the time, but side-by-side comparison of her fragment with his revision makes clear his limitations. “As Elizabeth had at all times more good will than method in her guidance of the house, she could make no change without a bustle,” Austen writes. “Elizabeth, as was her habit, undertook the preparations with more good will than method, and Emily did what she could without actual interference to reduce the confusion,” Coates rewrites, stripping out a vivid word (“bustle”) and inserting several vague ones (“did what she could without actual interference”).
Coates also has an exasperating proclivity for underlining ironic points that Austen trusts her readers to grasp without help. As the Watsons and their guest sit down to cards, Austen tells us that the shallow, caddish Tom Musgrave “was in fact excellently qualified to shine at a round game; and few situations made him appear to greater advantage.” Just in case we didn’t get it, Coates adds, “Though not perhaps a great claim to distinction, it was one he undoubtedly possessed, and should consequently be set down to his credit.”
The continuation has its strengths. Margaret Watson’s campaign to trap Tom into marriage is amusing; Coates’ vivacious Penelope Watson, a ruder version of Elizabeth Bennet, and his earthy but kind Lady Osborne, who calls to mind Sanditon’s Lady Denham, are frequently entertaining, although they bear little resemblance to the characters sketched in Austen’s fragment.
But our heroine, it must be said, is rather a drag, with a distinct weakness for interminable, mannerly speeches on moral subjects. If you’ve always wished that Mansfield Park included more of Fanny Price’s reflections on proper behavior, you’ll love Coates’ Emily.
It’s not only Emily who talks and talks. Coates’ pages are filled with long speeches and even longer scenes; he lacks Austen’s talent for swift, economical storytelling. And a sudden plot reversal halfway through the book drains Emily’s situation of much of its peril and, to my mind, much of its interest, as well.
Like Watsons continuer Edith Hubback Brown before him, Coates seems uncomfortable with the fear and desperation that drive Austen’s fragment. He prefers to return as quickly as possible to the more comfortable ground of romantic misunderstanding and comic courtship. Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.
John Coates. The Watsons: Jane Austen’s Fragment Continued and Completed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1958.