Deborah Yaffe


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, Jun 9 2014 01:00PM

Great news for aficionados of Jane Austen fan fiction: the long-inaccessible third volume of The Younger Sister, by Austen’s niece Catherine Hubback, is finally online,* in a version newly digitized by the University of Iowa.

As readers of my January-February blog series “The Watsons in Winter” will recall, Hubback’s 1850 continuation of Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons was the first published example of the now-popular genre of Austen fan fiction.

Copies of the book, long out of print, exist in only a handful of research libraries around the world, and although the first two volumes have long been available online, in versions digitized by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the third volume had proved too fragile to scan. Most readers wanting to find out how Hubback ends her story were out of luck.

Enter Iowa’s heroic librarians (really, that’s a phrase that should be employed more often, don’t you think?) Iowa holds the only copy of Hubback’s book available for interlibrary loan in the U.S., and when I emailed its librarians to ask about the possibility of digitizing this historically interesting book, they responded rapidly and favorably.

And now they’ve done it! Iowa’s digitized version of Volume III can be read online or downloaded as a PDF: I acquired all 434 pages in 25 minutes.

I’m looking forward to finishing Hubback’s story at last. She’s not as good a writer as her aunt--who is?–but she’s an entertaining Victorian who deserves to be read, if only because her early homage to Austen inspired so many to follow the same path.

* Thanks to reader cmickey, who alerted me to this news.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 3 2014 02:00PM

The library gods are smiling upon us Janeites.

As I reported in my recently completed “Watsons in Winter” blog series, Jane Austen’s niece, Catherine Hubback, was the first author to turn her hand to completing Austen’s novel fragment The Watsons. In fact, Hubback’s 1850 novel The Younger Sister is the first published example of Austen fan fiction, a genre that has, to say the least, come into its own in the intervening years.

Physical copies of the book, which is long out of print, are available only in the collections of a handful of research libraries. And to date, only the first two of Hubback’s three volumes have been digitized; as I learned when I looked into the issue last year, the third volume, held by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, was found to be too fragile to scan.

It’s a frustrating situation for Janeites intrigued by the book’s historical importance – not to mention for readers hoping to find out how Hubback wraps up her rather enjoyable plot.

But despair not: help is at hand. Last year, when I learned about the missing third volume, I contacted the library of the University of Iowa, which holds the only copy of Hubback’s novel that circulates via interlibrary loan in the United States.

Shawn Averkamp, the library’s acting head of digital research and publishing, responded promptly and positively to my email explaining the historical interest and frustrating inaccessibility of Hubback’s work.

And now comes a happy update: Averkamp tells me the library has placed its copy of Hubback’s Volume 3 in its digitization queue, and the book should be available for Google-assisted viewing in a month or so.

How cool is that? Our happy ending awaits. . .

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 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.

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