Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
I have recently read two finished versions of Austen’s The Watsons, a novel fragment which, they say, she abandoned after her father’s death in 1805. I have found it very amusing to see how they differ and how the authors of both completions have diverged so widely in so many ways.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Emma Watson who, like Jane Fairfax, had been sent away from home as a small child to live with her aunt. The Austen family seem to have been quite happy in happily dispatching children willy nilly to various relatives though it seems rather odd to modern sensibilities. One wonders what the children thought of it all. Emma was brought up in a comfortable household with all the niceties and is a refined ladylike character. But now her aunt, a widow, has remarried and what is more has married an Irishman, Captain O’Brien, and carried her off to Ireland. It is clear from the tone of the Austen fragment and the consequent writing that the Irish are viewed as being little more than savages and her remarriage is strongly disapproved of. Emma is sent home, as the new husband has no desire to have her around, and she meets her family for the first time since she was a child.
The two different versions I have read make for interesting reading. Emma Watson: The Watsons Completed is by Joan Aiken, very well known, who has also written other Austen sequels, Mansfield Revisited and Jane Fairfax, to name but two.
The second is by John Coates and was written in 1951, titled The Watsons: Continued and Completed. I came across this book in a jumble sale about three years ago and bought it for the princely sum of £1; it has been languishing on my shelves ever since. After doing a bit of research I was delighted to find that John Coates wrote Patience, which was published by Perspehone books a few years ago and was a delightful and unexpected read. According to their website, he was born in 1912 into a Yorkshire engineering family. He went to Haileybury and then read English at Cambridge, where he spent most of his time acting and writing plays and became President of Footlights.
The cast of characters are the same in both books with the odd addition, but both authors give them totally different attributes and feelings. I actually had to draw a table so that I could sort out who was who and how they differed, as I got a bit muddled after my two day Watson blitz. This is what I came up with:
- Elizabeth Watson – eldest daughter who looks after the invalid Mr Watson, runs the house, does her own washing and some cooking, dismissed as being an old maid who lost a lover in the past, and rather ignored by everyone, except the returning Emma who sees her as she really is, a lovable, kind and warm-hearted woman. Both John Coats (JC) and Joan Aiken (JAK) do not change this at all.
- Mr Watson – in both books he is ill and feeble but a tad more with it in the JC version. Mr Woodhouse comes to mind without the self-indulgence.
- Mary Watson – she stays the same as well. Whiny, moany, self pitying and desperate to find a husband. Makes slighting and contemptuous comments about everyone and is a bit of a snob. Think Mary Elliot in Persuasion, only worse.
- Penelope Watson – now here the authors diverge wildly . In the JAK version Penelope is, quite frankly, an absolute cow. Domineering, unpleasant and foul to her sisters, she has managed to trap an elderly doctor into marrying her and then proceeds to make his life a complete misery. She is jealous of Emma’s ‘refinement’ and upbringing. JC gives her a totally different slant. She and Emma (who he calls Emily in his version) form a loving friendship. Penelope is witty and amusing and not afraid to give her opinion. Think Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.
The other peripheral characters in The Watsons, the neighbours and friends etc., are more or less the same, including Tom Musgrave. He is charming, amusing, flirts with all the ladies and is ‘Not to be Trusted’ (sorry I am off again, think Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility and you get the idea).
However, the local family that everyone looks up to and wants to have on their guest list are the Osbornes, who live in Osborne Castle and are very rich and very proud. Here, once again, the two versions are totally different in their treatment of this family.
- JAK makes Lady Osborne a positive ogre; Lady Catherine de Burgh comes strongly to mind. She is a widow with her eye on Mr Howard, the castle chaplain, despite the fact he is some fifteen years younger than her. Her son, George, is stiff and proud and awkward – Mr Darcy anyone? (The pleasure of reading these books is spotting how the author has lifted characteristics from other well known Austen heroes and heroines).
- JC makes her a lovable and slightly eccentric character not unlike Mrs Jennings in Sense and Sensibility (I do apologise for constantly referring to other Austen creations but it gives an idea of the way each author has chosen to portray them). She is fond of Emma/Emily and makes no secret of the fact that she would be quite happy for her son to marry Emily even though she has no fortune.
It is clear from the fragment that Jane Austen wrote, that Mr Howard is the choice of husband for Emma Watson.
- JAK chooses to ignore this, pitches him into this slightly dodgy relationship with Lady Osborne, and introduces a new character toward the end of the novel to whom Emma becomes engaged. This really does not ring true at all and one gets the impression that by this time JAK did not know how to wind everything up after the story line she had pursued, and brought him in at the last minute.
- JC follows Jane Austen’s lead and unites Mr Howard and Emma, but only after the usual misunderstandings and upsets, as in all true love stories. I rather like Mr Howard – think Edmund Ferrers but with a lot more oomph and you will have got him just about right.
I really enjoyed reading these two books. The Joan Aiken is easily available and after a check I found that the John Coates one is gettable, and is available as an ebook as well. I really recommend this version and think it is closer to realising Jane Austen’s intent. I could not put it down, whereas the Aiken I could leave easily.
Elaine blogs at Random Jottings, where a version of this post first appeared.
BUY Emma Watson: The Watsons completed from Blackwell’s.