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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The Watsons in Winter: Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken’s books were among the delights of my childhood – propulsive, plot-driven novels in the Gothic spirit of Victorian classics like The Woman in White, but written in language more accessible to the tween set. I adored The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (plucky girls menaced by heartless adults, while furry predators howl outside in the snow), and I still vividly remember the factory in Midnight Is a Place, where child laborers pick lint off carpets and sprint to safety moments before a heavy pressing plate descends to crush them. So imagine my joy when I learned that the insanely prolific Aiken, author of more than one hundred books for children and adults, had a sideline in Jane Austen spinoffs. She wrote six -- sequels to Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Mansfield Park, as well as a 1996 completion of Austen’s fragment The Watsons, the subject of today’s post in my Watsons in Winter blog series. The result may not quite merit the rosy glow of my childhood memories, but it’s a breezy and good-humored novel, albeit one that owes less to Austen than to the Victorian novelists Aiken so often emulated.

Like Austen herself, Joan Aiken (1924-2004) came from a highly literate family (both her father and stepfather were accomplished writers), had relatively little formal education (she was homeschooled until the age of twelve and never attended university), and began writing in childhood, publishing her first work as a teenager. Widowed young, with two children to support, she learned her trade as an editor at the short-story magazine Argosy before graduating to a full-time writing career of her own. From the beginning of Emma Watson, it’s clear that Aiken is up to something less reverential than her fellow Watsons continuers. Rather than reproducing Austen’s fragment, Aiken begins her story shortly after its closing incidents, weaving in the necessary exposition as she goes along. This expedient frees her from the inevitably bruising effort to imitate Austen’s style, and despite some nineteenth-century vocabulary and phrasing, Aiken’s lucid and pleasing prose doesn’t really sound like Austen. That's no problem, since, as the story gets underway, it becomes increasingly clear that Aiken isn’t even trying to imagine the novel that Jane Austen might have written but didn’t. New characters with Dickensian names – Captain Fremantle, a charming sailor obsessed with Anglo-Saxon history; Percy Thickstaffe, a shrewd but shady entrepreneur – muscle their way in among Austen’s shabby-genteel Watsons and arrogant Osbornes. Increasingly un-Austenian plot elements pile up. A newlywed couple moves into an isolated and rundown mansion. A drunken-phaeton-driving accident produces fatalities; a long-ago sex scandal rears its head. Land speculation, horse racing, the threat of an incestuous marriage – it’s impossible not to be vastly entertained, as the appealingly straightforward Emma makes her way to a happy ending rather different from the one we’re told Jane Austen planned for her. Aiken clearly knows her Austen: Emma Watson is filled with sly Easter eggs for Janeites, from the mention of an offstage “Admiral Crawford” who will soon be moving to the neighborhood with his nephew (watch out, girls!) to a man’s remarking that his lost love is “so changed. . . . I would never have known her.” A last-minute request from the Prince of Wales for a book dedication is the icing on the Janeite cake. Despite all the Austen allusions, however, it’s clear that, whatever her original inspiration, Aiken didn’t end up writing another Jane Austen novel. Instead, she wrote a Joan Aiken novel – and that’s a very good thing indeed. Joan Aiken. Emma Watson: Jane Austen’s Unfinished Novel Completed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

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