Saturday, January 22, 2011

Jane Austen's The Watsons

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.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Nicola Cornick said...

I agree that it's a great pity this hasn't been reprinted, Elizabeth. I read it a long time ago from the library and would love to get my hands on the book again. I also wonder whether The Watsons in one or other of the finished forms has ever been considered for a TV adaptation? Given the interest in Jane Austen films and TV versions it seems odd that, as far as I know, no one has ever televised it. And what about Lady Susan - surely that would make a great TV film?

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree. And what about Marghanita Laski's (anonymous) 1975 completion of 'Sanditon'? That would make a good TV adaptation. It's very readable and there's plenty going on.

Amanda Grange said...

I haven't read this book, Elizabeth, but I must look out for it. Perhaps the library will have it. I know that Sourcebooks publish the Joan Aiken continuation of The Watsons

and I suppose that's why they don't publish the Coates version as well.

The Watsons has such a promising beginning that it makes Austen's early death even more of a tragedy. I'm sure she would have written many more novels if her life hadn't been cut short.

Jane Odiwe said...

I've not come across this book and would love to read it on your recommendation, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What I particularly like about the Coates' completion of 'The Watsons' is that it's faithful to the social conventions of the period. No indiscrimate calling of members of the opposite sex by their first names, for example. So when the hero finally calls the heroine by her first name, it packs a real emotional punch.

It's also witty in a very Austen-like way; Penelope Watson has some splendid one-liners. And the formidable Lady Osborne is a terrific character.