One of my favourite books is John Coates’ completion of Jane Austen’s fragment, The Watsons, published by Methuen in 1958.
I have read a number of completions of The Watsons but, to my mind, nobody has come anywhere near John Coates’ achievement. His book has wit, intelligence, a moral dimension (so important to Jane Austen) and the characters are varied, lively and behave in a manner which is true to the period. It is impossible to tell where Jane Austen’s fragment ends and Coates’ continuation begins.
In a fascinating article at the end of the book, Coates explains how he tackled it. He was convinced that Jane Austen’s ‘leisurely opening’ showed that she intended The Watsons to be a long book. In his version, the original is less than a quarter of the book.
Furthermore, he dared to alter the original where he felt it to be necessary. As a novelist himself, he needed both characters and incidents to be fresh, and not a pale imitation of ones in existing Austen books. He goes on to discuss the plusses and minuses of the original fragment. There are plenty of potentially interesting characters:
‘We have an ailing father, four unmarried daughters, and one married and one unmarried son. We have a bachelor peer in the neighbourhood with a flirtatious bachelor friend, a mother and an unmarried sister. We have a highly eligible clergyman with a widowed sister nearby. In the town of D. we have an almost unlimited quantity of officers from a colonel downwards, a young girl with rich parents and two eligible men, the sons of a banker. In the distance there is a rich elderly doctor, a young man who jilted the eldest of the four sisters, and finally a wealthy aunt who has just made a misfortunate second marriage to an Irishman.’
I think most of us would agree that all this is promising material. However, Coates points out that, as the fragment stands, the characters could easily become ‘too dull, too unpleasant or too like an existing Austen character.’
A good example is Penelope Watson whom he sees as ‘a mixture of the two unpleasant Misses Steele – even to the extent of chasing a doctor. I wanted a foil to my rather correct heroine, and Penelope as she now stands is my creation.’
The heroine, Emma Watson, ‘threatened to turn into another Fanny Price’. He re-names her Emily and gives her enough spirit to keep her distinct from Fanny whilst retaining her gentle but firm character.
The result is a book which succeeds triumphantly on its own merits. I’ve always loved it. It’s a great read; nothing jars, and it is both emotionally and intellectually satisfying. In my view, John Coates has done Jane Austen proud. Amazon gives it 5 stars but can only offer two extremely expensive second hand copies.
I can’t understand why it hasn’t been reprinted.