Deborah Yaffe


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 13 2014 02:00PM

Catherine Hubback, the first person to try her hand at a completion of Jane Austen’s fragment The Watsons, is no longer an entirely obscure figure: her Austen family connections, her Austen-linked literary effort, and her own intrepid life have gained her a fair amount of scholarly attention.

Not so L. Oulton, the author of the next Watsons continuation, which appeared in 1923, seventy-three years after Hubback’s, and which is the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series.

That indeterminate first initial gives no clue to as basic a matter as gender, but, on the whole, it seems likely that Oulton was female: several contemporaneous reviews of The Watsons, Concluded, including this one, refer to its author as “Miss Oulton," as does David Gilson, in his Austen bibliography. (She was so little known, though, that thirty-five years later, another Watsons continuer, John Coates, offhandedly assumes his predecessor was male.)

All I’ve been able to glean from an Internet search is the fact that Oulton, whoever she was, also wrote a collection of sensational stories, Exceeding Pleasant and Other Sketches, published in 1913, ten years before the Austen continuation. Perhaps Marina Cano López, the author of an as-yet-unpublished dissertation on Watsons completions, has discovered more; I’m eager to read her work once it becomes available.

In the meantime, it would be satisfyingly romantic to report that the mysterious Oulton is a neglected genius whose noble work has been unaccountably overlooked by history. Unfortunately, the reality is a bit more prosaic. The Watsons, Concluded is limp and unsatisfying -- the outline of a novel, rather than a fully fleshed-out tale.

The writing veers from serviceable Austen pastiche to histrionic tripe (“How little did he realize that his idle words were as a naked sword in her breast”), and the story is far more tell than show. Scenes and incidents are summarized without dialogue to dramatize them; people come and go without advancing either character development or plot.

Some of that plot – the death of Emma Watson’s father, her life with her grasping brother and sister-in-law, Emma's romance with Mr. Howard and Lady Osborne’s unrequited passion for him – follows the storyline that Jane Austen is said to have planned. Other elements – a sleazy con artist’s pursuit of Emma, Mr. Howard’s trip to Italy with the Osbornes – seem flamboyantly un-Austenian. (And, indeed, for all the Italian atmosphere Oulton manages to summon, the Osbornes might as well have stayed at home in Surrey.)

The book is sentimental in ways that Jane Austen never was. Oulton makes Emma’s niece, little Augusta Watson, the daughter of the execrable Robert and Jane, a cherub “with much more natural refinement than either her father or her mother,” rather than the spoiled brat that Austen, the creator of Lady Middleton and her tantrum-throwing toddler, Annamaria, would more likely have envisioned.

And in the melodramatic backstory that Lady Osborne implausibly shares with Mr. Howard, Oulton's writing conjures the extravagantly insincere heroines of Austen’s “Love and Freindship,” that hilarious sendup of the sentimental novel. I couldn’t help giggling as Lady Osborne's narrative piled catastrophe upon catastrophe: “Not long afterward my father died from an accident. The shock brought a stroke on my mother, depriving her of the power of speech, which she never afterward recovered. . . . As it was seldom possible to leave her, I could see but little of my children, for as the Dower House was small, and indifferently built, she could not endure their noise.”

But that moment of unintentional levity isn’t enough to redeem the whole. Ultimately, The Watsons, Concluded remains as shadowy and insubstantial as its author.

L. Oulton. The Watsons, Concluded. London: Hutchinson and Co.,1923.

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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