Deborah Yaffe

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Wrapping up The Watsons in Winter

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 13 2014 02:00PM

“Each of us has a private Austen,” Karen Joy Fowler writes at the beginning of The Jane Austen Book Club, her 2004 novel about how fiction changes lives. Romance, social satire, feminist polemic, literary comfort food – every reader finds something different in Austen’s pages.


That insight, which became one of the themes of my book Among the Janeites, came to mind as I looked back on the ten continuations of Jane Austen’s novel fragment The Watsons, which I’ve reviewed for the past five weeks in my “Watsons in Winter” blog series.

The continuations are an eclectic mix, ranging from an 1850 three-decker Victorian novel written by Austen’s niece to a slender fan fiction self-published two years ago by an ardent Canadian Janeite.


As novels, it must be said, many of these books are not very good. Some suffer from the predictable problems of non-professional writing: awkward plotting, thin character development, lackluster writing.


Some of the continuers are dangerously meddlesome: they tinker with Austen’s prose – seldom a good idea – or throw her storytelling approach to the winds, highlighting the melodrama she keeps firmly offstage. But others have the opposite problem: they exhibit a timid deference that produces dutiful, paint-by-numbers versions of the plot we’re told Austen planned.


And of course even the best of these books is surely not as good as the book Jane Austen would have written had she chosen to finish The Watsons.


Considered not as standalone novels but as readings of Jane Austen, however, the continuations make an interesting study, throwing into stark relief the writers’ own “private Austens.”


A Roman Catholic nun turns Austen’s heroine into a deeply religious young girl, reminding us of the religious context that shaped Austen’s life but is largely missing from her work. A neo-Victorian novelist ramps up the eccentricity of plot and characters. Austen descendants urge a return to a purer, more Jane-like, ur-text.


And with only a few exceptions, a sunnier Austen – an Austen who rewards virtue, punishes vice, and dispenses happy endings with a liberal hand – seems to prevail.


Arguably, even the cheeriest of Austen’s novels is shadowed by sorrow: the near-ruin of Lydia Bennet and her marriage to “one of the most worthless young men in Great Britain” facilitates Elizabeth and Darcy’s happy ending; the sad life and early death of Mrs. Tilney play as background to the love story of Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland.


And those are the happier books. The darkness is even more pronounced in the melancholy, autumnal mood of Persuasion, with its story of lost love and second chances, or the equivocal ending of Mansfield Park, when Austen foregrounds the existence of “guilt and misery,” only to announce that she isn’t going to write about them.


In its brief length, The Watsons has more than its share of darkness, for its fundamental situation – a young woman, cast out of the home where she was raised, returning penniless to a family she barely knows – is inherently sad, a potent reminder of the precariousness of life for Regency women without money.


Yet many of the writers who chose to continue the fragment wish away that darkness, working feverishly, and often implausibly, to restore Emma Watson to a more prosperous social position and assign every halfway sympathetic character a congenial life partner. Theirs is a fundamentally reassuring Austen, a writer who tells us that no pain is irreparable, that order can always be restored, that all is right with our world.


She’s not much like my Jane Austen, who is an altogether sadder, spikier, more ambivalent writer. But, then, that’s the point. Each of us has our own private Austen.


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