Some Jane Austen fanfiction is produced by professional writers with one eye on a potentially profitable market. But much Austen fanfiction is written by non-professionals – readers, essentially – who revere Jane Austen and want to lay a gift at the feet of the master. As literature, the results do not always succeed. But as expressions of love, they are often rather touching. Such is Jennifer Ready Bettiol’s 2012 completion of The Watsons, the subject of today’s post in my Watsons in Winter blog series. It’s an undercooked wrap-up of Austen’s fragment – Bettiol's additions consume fewer pages than Austen’s brief original, creating a work that is “more novella than novel,” as Bettiol herself admits – but it’s also a sincere act of homage and, as such, something every Janeite can appreciate.
Jennifer Ready Bettiol (b. 1950s), an accountant and college accounting instructor in Vancouver, British Columbia, is herself an active Janeite: she serves as treasurer of the Vancouver chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, has attended JASNA’s national conferences, and joined JASNA’s summer 2012 tour of Austen sites in England. In Oxford, she saw the Bodleian Library’s newly purchased partial manuscript of The Watsons and, in the presence of Austen’s work, drew enhanced inspiration for her own project. Bettiol has taken care to avoid obvious anachronism, consulting online concordances of Austen’s vocabulary and mulling scholarly research on Austen’s use of language. At times, this work pays off: Bettiol gives Emma Watson’s grasping sister Penelope a convincingly disingenuous speech filled with over-the-top adverbs (“amazingly,” “vastly”) and comes close to Austen’s dry wit in a description of the nouveau riche Croydon home of the eldest Watson brother (“It wanted a little rain to temper its new angles and a few vines to dull its sharp edges.”) Alas, Bettiol’s storytelling and characterization exhibit less care. As is too often the case in Jane Austen fan fiction,events follow one another with little sense of overarching design, and character development is reported, rather than dramatized. A serious accident, a surprising character arc, and a secret engagement get barely more attention than the usual array of afternoon visits and evening balls, and a potentially entertaining set-piece is alluded to – as “a comedy worthy of Sheridan” – and then dropped without elaboration. Perhaps Bettiol’s heart wasn’t fully in her work. In her preface, she acknowledges glossing over plot lines in the fragment that didn’t interest her, and she admits to finding Austen’s hero and heroine, Emma Watson and Mr. Howard, “a bit dull,” too sensible and self-contained for maximum drama. It’s a point of view I don’t really share – Austen’s fragment gives us so little of Mr. Howard, in particular, that it’s hard to know how he was going to turn out – but Bettiol is fully entitled to her opinion. Indeed, I wish she’d been truer to her impulses and channeled her careful research and Janeite devotion in a direction that inspired her more – or, alternatively, thrown research to the winds and approached her project in a more playful, less respectful spirit. Janeites aren’t required to feel equal enthusiasm for every word that fell from Austen’s pen. If you find Emma Watson dull, then why not write about someone else – another Jane Austen character, or a newly imagined, more engaging Emma Watson? Fan fiction has no laws. It may be possible to pay Jane Austen too much homage.
Jennifer Ready Bettiol. The Watsons. Amazon Digital Services, 2012.