Deborah Yaffe


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 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.

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