Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2014 02:00PM

The first-ever completion of Jane Austen’s fragment The Watsons – Catherine Hubback’s 1850 novel The Younger Sister, the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series – occupies a special place in Janeite lore. It is the first published Austen fan fiction, the founding mother of a genre whose exemplars now fill groaning shelves in bookstores everywhere.

Because Hubback was Jane Austen’s niece, albeit too young to have known Austen personally, it’s also tempting to speculate that Hubback's completion incorporates what older relatives told her about Austen’s own plans for her unfinished story. And aside from its historical interest, Hubback’s book is solidly entertaining in its own right: not as good as Jane Austen, of course (what is?), but an often well-written, middle-brow Victorian novel.

It’s truly a shame, then, that most Janeites currently have little chance of reading The Younger Sister in its entirety.* Long out of print, the book apparently now exists only in the collections of seven libraries: one in Australia, two in the United States, and four in Great Britain. One of the American libraries does not make its copy available for interlibrary loan, leaving a single copy to circulate among all American Janeites who may wish to read it.

In the age of Google Books, the solution to this problem seems obvious, and, indeed, the first two volumes of Hubback’s three-volume novel – each more than three hundred octavo pages long – have for years been available on line, in digital copies made from the edition owned by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

But not the third volume. “Unfortunately when volume 3 reached the scanning room it was found to be too fragile for scanning,” a Bodleian representative informed me via email last year. (Buyers, beware: a past Amazon offering purporting to be volume III is apparently volume II.)

Consequently, I have not yet been able to read the end of Hubback’s novel. Volume II finishes on a cliffhanger – will plucky, virtuous Emma Watson escape the clutches of smooth, seductive Mr. Morgan, whose intentions seem distinctly dishonorable? – and the happy ending remains just over the horizon. It's a frustrating roadblock for anyone interested in the history of Watsons continuations.

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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