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 Perhaps Marina Cano López, the author of an as-yet-unpublished dissertation on Watsons completions, has discovered more; I’m eager to read her work once it becomes available.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.