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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The Watsons in Winter: Edith Hubback Brown

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.

Edith Hubback Brown (1876-1947) clearly treasured her Austen family roots, which extended back through her father, John Hubback, to his mother, Catherine Hubback; and Catherine's father, Jane Austen’s brother Francis. Brown collaborated with her father on the 1906 book Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers, a joint biography of Francis and Charles Austen, who both ended their days as British admirals. The title page of Brown's Watsons continuation also indicates that it is a collaboration, this time with her husband, Francis Brown, but it is not clear whether he played any role in its composition, since the dedication and preface are signed by Edith Brown alone. Over the next couple of years, she published sequels to Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park under the name “Mrs. Francis Brown,” so perhaps she just thought it appropriate to signal her marital status at the same time as she claimed authorship. (Touchingly, she dedicates her Watsons continuation to her father, by then in his eighties, “to remind him of the time when we wrote ‘Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers’ together.”) Although Brown was born in northwest England and married a man from the same county, she spent her early married life in Saskatchewan, Canada, where her two children were born, and passed the last part of her life in South Africa. Her son married an Indian woman and died repelling a Japanese advance into India in 1944. Geographically, at least, her life seems far more adventurous than that of her famous great-great-aunt. But Brown takes few liberties with her Watsons continuation, unless cribbing wholesale from her grandmother's book while stripping off most of the flesh that Hubback puts on the bones of her scenes counts as a liberty. Brown says she aimed to "disentangle Jane's story from that of her niece" -- yes, to be fair, Brown does explain that her book is somehow based on Hubback's, although only a side-by-side reading makes clear how entirely Brown is in Hubback's debt, even sentence to sentence -- but the result is curiously skeletal and perfunctory. In place of Hubback's seven-hundred-plus pages, Brown's version takes up fewer than two hundred, with non-Austen material running only a slightly greater number of pages than the brief original fragment. Hubback's entire third volume (which, as I've explained elsewhere, is difficult to obtain today) is replaced by only thirty pages in Brown's breakneck finale. Along the way to her conclusion, Brown offers up unremarkable, barely dramatized versions of the displacements, proposals, refusals and weddings with which, according to J.E. Austen-Leigh’s famous Memoir, Jane Austen planned to fill out her narrative. Lord Osborne and his mother unsuccessfully pursue the hero and heroine, and various secondary characters pair off, but no suspense or emotional depth develops. Brown cuts out the new characters and subplots that Hubback introduced into The Younger Sister -- not true to Jane, I guess -- but fails to fill the void with anything more Austenian. And unlike Hubback, Brown shies away from fully exploring the darkness at the heart of Austen’s story, hurrying through the death of Mr. Watson and the ensuing misery and dependence of his unmarried daughters to get to her happy ending. Even four generations later, desperation and loneliness are unhappy topics – on the whole, not much fun. Edith and Francis Brown. The Watsons by Jane Austen: Completed in Accordance with Her Intentions. London: Elkin Mathews & Marrot Ltd., 1928.

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