Deborah Yaffe


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.

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.

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