Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2018 01:00PM

Thanks to her four reproductively prolific brothers – James, Edward, Frank and Charles produced an impressive total of thirty-three sons and daughters, all but five of whom lived into adulthood – the never-married Jane Austen has many, many collateral descendants.


Some of these nieces, nephews and many-times-great iterations thereof have capitalized on their Austen connections. Frank’s daughter Catherine Hubback was the first person to publish Jane Austen fanfic – a completion of the unfinished Watsons manuscript; James’ son, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote the first biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


Later generations published the first collection of Jane Austen’s letters (Edward’s grandson Lord Brabourne); wrote chronicles of the family’s history (Frank’s grandson John Hubback and great-granddaughter Edith Hubback Brown, and James’ grandson and great-grandson William and Richard Austen-Leigh); and helped found the Jane Austen Society of North America (James’ great-great-granddaughter Joan Austen-Leigh).


Last week brought news of the death of another such Austen descendant: ninety-nine-year-old Diana Shervington, a great-great-granddaughter of Edward, who spent the last third of her long life in Lyme Regis, one of England’s most Austen-evocative places. Shervington, a homemaker and potter whose two Austen-descended grandmothers were sisters (yes, that means her parents were first cousins), led an interesting life, judging from the obituaries (see here and here). Check out the tale of her wartime romance with the man who became her husband. Talk about a meet-cute!


Although Shervington’s sister-grandmothers had never known Jane Austen, they knew older relatives who had, and they shared these second-hand memories. And during Shervington’s childhood, her parents spent years at Chawton House, Edward’s former home, caring for an elderly relation who in turn left Shervington some of her Austen relics.


When the late-nineties Austen craze hit, Shervington gained Janeite semi-fame by donating some of those heirlooms to Lyme’s museum and showing others off during talks she gave to visiting Austen fans. Whether her particular brand of reminiscence was to your taste or not – I confess to being in the “not” camp, but nil nisi bonum and all that – it’s sad to see the snapping of another tenuous link to the real Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 23 2014 02:00PM

What is it with the extended Hubback clan? They just can’t seem to get enough of Jane Austen’s fragment The Watsons.


The first person to continue The Watsons was Catherine Anne Austen Hubback, Jane Austen’s niece, with her 1850 novel The Younger Sister. Seventy-eight years later came Catherine’s granddaughter, Edith Hubback Brown, with a radically abridged version of Hubback’s novel that, Brown argued, hewed closer to Austen’s intentions.


And forty-nine years after that came yet another Hubback family production, which is the subject of today’s post in my “Watsons in Winter” blog series: a completion of The Watsons coyly attributed to “Jane Austen and Another." Despite the official cloak of anonymity, it seems to have been an open secret in Janeite circles that the author was David Hopkinson, the husband of Diana Hubback, a niece of Edith Brown.


Like Brown, Hopkinson aimed not to imagine his own ending to The Watsons but rather to rewrite Hubback’s novel, stripping away her subplots and dated interventions to allow what he perceived as a more Austen-like book to emerge.


Since we can’t know what Austen would have written had she ever returned to The Watsons, it’s hard to know how well Hopkinson succeeds in this effort. What’s clear is that his book is only partially successful as a novel in its own right.

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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 16 2014 02:00PM

Less than two sentences into her preface, Edith Hubback Brown is already asserting her genetic right to complete Jane Austen’s fragment The Watsons. “I will not apologise. I like my great-aunt Jane, and she would have liked me,” Brown writes, with an absolute certainty that will sound familiar to other Janeites equally convinced that only an accident of history prevented them from becoming Austen’s closest confidant.


“She would have said, ‘I am pleased with your notion, and expect much entertainment,’ ” Brown continues. “Solemn people can say, if they like, that we should not do this, but I decline to be solemn about Aunt Jane. She was fun, much more than she was anything else, and this has been fun to do.”


I do not begrudge Edith Hubback Brown her harmless fun. Alas, however, her 1928 continuation, the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series, is not much of a book. Although in outline it closely tracks a previous Watsons continuation -- The Younger Sister, by Brown's grandmother, Catherine Hubback, the subject of an earlier "Watsons in Winter" blog post -- Brown drains Hubback's original of much of its charm. Brown's writing is adequate and even shows occasional flashes of wit, but her story is rushed and her characters one-dimensional. Novelistic talent may not be genetic after all.

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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