Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 27 2014 02:00PM

Joan Aiken’s books were among the delights of my childhood – propulsive, plot-driven novels in the Gothic spirit of Victorian classics like The Woman in White, but written in language more accessible to the tween set.

I adored The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (plucky girls menaced by heartless adults, while furry predators howl outside in the snow), and I still vividly remember the factory in Midnight Is a Place, where child laborers pick lint off carpets and sprint to safety moments before a heavy pressing plate descends to crush them.

So imagine my joy when I learned that the insanely prolific Aiken, author of more than one hundred books for children and adults, had a sideline in Jane Austen spinoffs. She wrote six -- sequels to Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Mansfield Park, as well as a 1996 completion of Austen’s fragment The Watsons, the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series.

The result may not quite merit the rosy glow of my childhood memories, but it’s a breezy and good-humored novel, albeit one that owes less to Austen than to the Victorian novelists Aiken so often emulated.

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.

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