The Watsons & Emma Watson by Jane Austen & Joan Aiken

I’ll admit it has been quite some time since I read Austen’s fragment “The Watsons.” While I always enjoy the juvenilia, I don’t find myself savoring the reading experience the way I do with Austen’s novels or even Sanditon. But Aiken’s “completion” of the tale motivated me to revisit the story, and I am so glad I did.

Austen’s part reminds me very much of other Austen. Everyone but Emma (and often her oldest sister Elizabeth) is annoying at best and awful at worst, much as everyone but Anne is in Persuasion. It is astounding really that Emma Watson has any judgment at all given her irredeemable family; it’s a blessing that she was sent away to live with her wealthier aunt (a la Mansfield Park). Like Fanny, she is sent home unexpectedly, to find a somewhat valetudinarian father (as in Emma), but she manages to bond with one sister at least (her father is in much greater possession of wit and intelligence than is Mr. Woodhouse, much as I adore the latter). There is an older brother with a horribly pushy wife who scorns her sisters in law (as Fanny Dashwood does in Sense and Sensibility). Austen’s fragment ends with a complete and thorough establishment of character, and our poor heroine seemingly stuck in a tough situation, but not, of course, any resolution to the conflicts. (How old was she when she wrote this?!)

Aiken’s section picks up almost seamlessly from there with foreshadowing of trouble with Aunt Maria in Ireland, a new marriage (of Emma’s horrible, scheming sister Penelope to an easy-going doctor whom she married for money, of course), and greater exploration of the character of Mr. Howard, the one man who caught our heroine’s attention in Austen’s fragment. Though it seemed to this discerning reader that Emma possessed innocent but rational judgment with respect to which men to trust (much as Catherine Morland does), Aiken chooses to make Mr. Howard a more complicated interest than I think Austen would have, but, without ruining the end for you, I’ll just say that Aiken’s ending works, too, even if I wish we knew our hero a bit better. Maybe he, like Wentworth, is a man whose few words we hear are enough to convince us of his meriting our heroine. By page 60—maybe even earlier—you know who deserves to be happy and who does not.

Before that can happen however, many things have to go wrong in Emma Watson’s world. Mr. Howard stays away (we suspect because he likes her and is bound to another, like Edward Ferrars), but his sisters and his friend visit the Watsons, and Mr. Howard himself shows every attention to Emma’s father whenever the two men are together (much as Mr. Knightley does for Mr. Woodhouse).

Aiken picks up on several trends Austen established, including having some characters sound like characters we’ll later meet in the novels. We have the prototype for Mr. Collins in a man who refers to the probable death of the heroine’s beloved father when the “inevitable melancholy event befalls” them. Elizabeth Watson delivers Elizabeth Bennet’s sentiment when she asks, “and is not a ballroom the very place where introductions can be made?” Sam sets the model for William Price, always writing letters to Emma once she leaves home at a girl, even when the letters of her sisters have stopped. Lady Osborne has an intimidating approach that rivals Lady Catherine’s, but with a very different resolution and purpose. Miss Elizabeth could play another version of Anne Elliot, with Penelope being a selfish version of Lady Russell and Purvis a less excusable Wentworth. Penelope also resembles Miss Elliot in several ways, including even the need to downsize when she has overspent her (husband’s) funds. When Mr. Watson passes away, the Emma and Elizabeth’s situation suddenly sounds awfully close to Jane and Cassandra’s after the Reverend Austen died, and also like that of the Dashwood daughters.

The married sisters and brother are awful, the single brother is decent but near powerless to help Emma and Elizabeth, and what with sudden deaths, mysterious romances, and mentions of bizarre circumstances awaiting discovery, the continuation of “The Watsons” has plenty of excitement to keep the reader’s interest, even after Austen’s treasured words and phrases have ended.

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Published in: on December 14, 2010 at 6:57 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. It was good to see the novel finished, and there are many wonderful qualities to it. However, the standard tension between hero and heroine is entirely missing — no misunderstandings to overcome, no history to resolve — Emma’s Captain seemed almost a “deus ex machina”. The historical detail in some passages will enthrall re-eanactors, but to me the recipe for laundry remedies, e.g., was a little distracting. In these two points it is not Austen-esque, but the novel does provide, as stated, a pretty good story.


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