The Watsons in Winter: Merryn Williams
By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 30 2014 02:00PM
Merryn Williams’ completion of The Watsons, Jane Austen’s fragment of a novel, is a modest undertaking.
With new material that runs only slightly longer than the brief original, Williams’ version -- the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series -- stakes no great claim to breadth, depth, or originality. No new characters erupt into Austen’s story; no unexpected plot twists deform the expected course of events.
And yet, this very modesty is disarming, even appealing. By the time Williams’ conclusion rolled around, I found myself a bit sorry to bid her characters goodbye.
Merryn Williams (b. 1944) is a British poet, critic, editor and translator who holds a doctorate in English from Cambridge University and has published on Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen and Margaret Oliphant, among others. Inevitably, she is also known as the daughter of Raymond Williams, one of Britain’s most prominent twentieth-century left-wing intellectuals and a pioneer of cultural studies.
Her distinguished pedigree and substantial literary achievements don’t burden her Watsons continuation, however. Williams’ prose is straightforward and uncluttered; while she doesn’t sound especially like Austen, she avoids awkwardness or anachronism.
Her story follows the lines laid down in J.E. Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt: the death of Emma Watson’s father; the removal of his spinster daughters to the home of their married brother, Robert; the rejection of a marriage proposal from a rich man en route to a happy ending with a poorer one.
While some of her predecessors in the Watsons-continuation game seem eager to downplay the darkness in Austen's story, Williams effectively evokes the misery of Emma’s life once her father, and his salary, are gone: the backbiting among the five women crowded into Robert’s house in Croydon; the indignities of living as a charity case; the pressure on Emma to accept Lord Osborne’s proposal, for her family’s sake as well as her own.
Williams’ rendition of Lord Osborne’s carelessly arrogant offer of marriage, which makes Mr. Darcy’s insulting first proposal seem a masterpiece of delicacy by comparison, is especially well done. And she creates an Emma Watson who is plausibly scrupulous and right-thinking without tipping into priggishness.
In her brevity, however, Williams gives short shrift to most of the secondary characters, those satirical caricatures who delight Austen’s readers. Had Austen finished The Watsons, she surely would have allowed us more time with whiny Margaret Watson, caddish Tom Musgrave and self-absorbed Lady Osborne than Williams does.
And Williams’ story begins to lose momentum in its final stages, once it is clear that Emma and the minister Mr. Howard are mutually attached and likely to end up together. The obstacles in their path – the nastiness of Lady Osborne, who wants Mr. Howard for herself; the meddling of Tom; the noble scruples about scotching the beloved's chance to make a more prudential match – barely convince.
In all Jane Austen’s novels, with the possible exception of Northanger Abbey, the lovers are kept apart not by circumstance or the malice of others but by obstacles arising directly from their own characters. Edward Ferrars’ sense of honor prevents him from marrying Elinor Dashwood; Elizabeth Bennet’s angry misjudgments drive her rejection of Darcy’s proposal.
Austen is interested in character development and moral choice. Her heroes and heroines come together when they have grown enough to make their unions into marriages of true minds. It’s more interesting – but also more difficult – to create stories in which character drives plot, rather than the other way around, and Williams hasn’t managed to do that here.
Nevertheless, I found myself enjoying her version of The Watsons. I’ve slogged through many a work of Jane Austen fan fiction wishing someone – anyone! – had persuaded its author to prune with vigor. It’s a tribute to Merryn Williams that I finished her continuation of The Watsons and found myself wishing it had been longer.
Merryn Williams. The Watsons. London: Pen Press Publishers Ltd., 2005.
Thanks for your comments. I agree about plot driving characters in this version; I wish Williams had developed her heroine and hero more, and brought them together after they came to deserve each other. But she made me like and admire them, and in making Mr. Howard the namesake of John Howard, moved me to research the latter unjustly-forgotten hero of prison reform. I also did further research on the heroic Thomas Clarkson, featured in the 2007 film Amazing Grace.
Like you, I regretted the shortness of Williams' version. I've re-read it several times, with considerable pleasure.
It is unfortunate that she has Emma's and Elizabeth's marriages take place during the six months of deep mourning for their father, but that is a trivial mistake which could easily be rectified in a new edition.
Oh, I didn't know she'd named the hero after a real-life hero: that's a fascinating detail. IIRC, Jane Austen mentions in one of her letters that she, too, was a fan of Thomas Clarkson (and when he's played by Rufus Sewell, who among us would disagree?)