The Watsons in Winter
By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 6 2014 02:00PM
The Watsons, the novel Jane Austen started and then abandoned on the cusp of her thirties, is a wintry book: not, perhaps, in its chronology – the story starts in October – but in its mood.
In a swift fifty-five pages, most likely written in Bath in 1804, Austen sketches a middle-class family trembling on the edge of economic disaster – an ailing father, four single daughters with few marital prospects, and two sons whose fledgling professional lives are shadowed by the knowledge that they may soon have to support their spinster sisters.
The nineteen-year-old heroine, Emma Watson, is an outsider in her own home – unceremoniously packed off to her family after fourteen years in the household of an aunt whose brand-new husband has decided to renege on the implied promise of a home and a dowry.
The Watsons seems likely to feature plenty of Austen humor, stemming from both the naiveté of the good-hearted Emma (“Rivalry, treachery between sisters!” she exclaims in astonishment when she hears how one of her siblings scotched the marital prospects of another) and the excesses of such secondary characters as the shallow, social-climbing sister-in-law, Jane; the whiny and hypocritical younger sister, Margaret; and the flirtatious Tom Musgrave, playing wingman for the standoffish Lord Osborne. Behind these shadowy beginnings of characters, we glimpse the familiar, well-loved figures of Mrs. Elton and Mary Musgrove, Frank Churchill and Mr. Darcy.
But despite the flashes of wit (Margaret, hearing she won’t have to share her room with Emma, is “rather mortified to find she was not ill-used”), the prevailing mood is dark. Barely acquainted with her closest relations, Emma struggles with feelings of loneliness and rejection and sadly discovers that the fierce competition for survival and social advantage has embittered many of the people she left behind. In places, the fragment reads like the first romantic comedy inspired by Hobbes.
Indeed, critics have speculated that Austen abandoned The Watsons because the story she planned, centering on the heroine’s displacement and dependence following her father’s death, cut too close to home, painfully resembling the situation she, her mother and her sister, Cassandra, faced in early 1805, when the Rev. George Austen’s death stranded them in Bath with little money and forced them to rely on the Austen sons for support.
Like Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished a dozen years later, when her final illness overtook her, The Watsons fills a Janeite reader with mixed emotions: joy in Austen’s wit, energy and perceptiveness, coupled with sadness that we will never meet all the people she imagined or know quite how her story would have played out.
Still, Austen left more clues to her intentions for The Watsons than she did for Sanditon. When her nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh, included The Watsons in the 1871 second edition of his Memoir of Jane Austen, he appended an explanatory note detailing the plot as Austen had outlined it to Cassandra – the situation Emma would face after the death of her father; the marriage proposal she would receive and reject from the eligible Lord Osborne; the romantic triangle in which she would find herself; and, ultimately, her marriage to the clergyman, Mr. Howard.
But in all Jane Austen’s books, the pleasure lies in the journey, not just the arrival. We want to know how Emma would have grown and changed on her way to the altar, whether she would have formed a true friendship with any of her sisters, whether she would have found her hero grave or funny, charming or diffident. We want to meet the tantalizing characters whom the fragment barely introduces: the scheming Penelope Watson; the snobbish Miss Osborne; and Lord Osborne's aristocratic mother, who Austen-Leigh tells us was to be Emma’s rival for Mr. Howard’s affections. (Regency cougar, anyone?)
A promising beginning, a road map for the journey – no wonder this fragment has drawn its share of interest from intrepid fan-fiction writers, both professional and non-professional. They’re an eclectic bunch, including an acclaimed children’s-book writer, a Roman Catholic nun, the daughter of a famed British Marxist intellectual, and no fewer than three collateral descendants of Jane Austen herself.
To warm the cold weeks ahead, I’ll be writing about these continuations – I know of ten that have been published, though given the kudzu-like proliferation of fan fiction, I can’t be sure I’ve identified them all -- in a blog series titled “The Watsons in Winter,” the bookend to my “Sanditon Summer.”
If you’re keeping score at home, here are the ten Watsons continuations I’ll be discussing:
4. John Coates. The Watsons: Jane Austen’s Fragment Continued and Completed. Crowell, 1958. [Read my review here.]
6. Joan Aiken. Emma Watson: Jane Austen’s Unfinished Novel Completed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. [Read my review here.]
9. Eucharista Ward. The Watsons Revisited: A Continuation of Austen’s “The Watsons.” Outskirts Press, 2012. [Read my review here.]