Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jane Austen’s fragment, The Watsons, was published posthumously by J. E. Austen-Leigh and few attempts have been made to complete it. One such attempt was by Joan Aiken entitled The Watsons and Emma Watson, first published in 1996 (reissued in 2008). Another is this hard-to-find book by John Coates published in 1958. Jane Austen’s original fragment consists only of 6 complete chapters and a few paragraphs. While that may seem to some to be too short to determine Ms. Austen’s intended direction, John Coates audaciously attempts to complete this fragment while maintaining Jane Austen’s well-known witty repartee and fleshing out the lovable cast of characters she introduced.
Mr. Coates does make some changes in Jane Austen’s original fragment (such as changing the heroine’s name to “Emily” instead of “Emma,” and changing Austen’s use of the word “chair” for an equipage to “gig”). He includes a postscript at the end of his novel as an explanation of the changes he made in the fragment. His style in the novel and his tone in the postscript show the reader that he treated Ms. Austen’s work reverently and admiringly.
The Watsons are a family that consists of four unmarried daughter and two sons (one married and one not). The father of this clan suffers from depression since his wife’s death and does not go out in society. Emily, our heroine, has not been apart of this household; she has been raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle (similar to like Fanny Price). Thus, Emily, the youngest child, has received a more genteel and refined upbringing than the rest of her siblings. Emily returns home, at the age of 19, after spending 14 wonderful and happy years with her aunt because her aunt has remarried an Irish captain. Emily is happy to be re-introduced to her family which she hardly knew before she left and did not correspond with. Her eldest sister, Elizabeth, sees to all the domestic responsibilities of the household, she is practical and warmhearted. Penelope, the second eldest sister, who has the acerbic wit of both Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bennet, is pert and lively. Margaret, in my opinion, is a character that is intentionally unlikable; she is self-absorbed, petty, and disagreeable. (She reminds me of Mary Musgrove). Emily is all that is proper and prim; she endeavors to personify a correct and well-mannered young lady.
Emily is introduced not only to her family, but all the inhabitants of her hometown. Emily is warned by Elizabeth about Mr. Tom Musgrave’s flirtatious habits and for this reason and she allows Margret the sole pleasure of chasing him. The first family of consequence, the Osbourne’s, who previously had little to do with the Watson’s, are now thrown together more frequently because Emily is admired by Lord Osbourne. However, Emily finds that she is more attracted to Lord Osbourne’s former tutor and present curate, Mr. Howard. A love triangle ensues in which Emily is in the middle and finds that her theories of puritanical deportment are failing her.
Emily and Penelope share a close relationship that is open, loving, and full of teasing. This is similar to other sisterly relationships we see in Jane Austen’s works. Penelope becomes our second heroine and is one we can learn to love and admire as much as Emily. However, I felt at times, that the author focused more on Penelope and her story than he should have and less on Emily and her story than I would have liked. The same can be said for Emily’s two suitors: Lord Osbourne and Mr. Howard, I think Mr. Coates characterization and development of Lord Osbourne is very satisfying and complete, I wish he did the same for Mr. Howard.
I applaud John Coates’ completion of The Watsons and found it to be very pleasing. The dialogue was entertaining and witty, the characters were lovable, humorous, and worthy of comparison to other Austen characters. I did not notice a stark difference in the two authors’ writing and it was hard to determine where Jane Austen ended and John Coates began. However, I did feel a gradual loss of Jane Austen’s gentle and playful tone by the end of the book. But who can write with Jane Austen’s tone, style, dialogue, and characterization? (In my opinion Mr. Coates got 3 out of 4) I believe John Coates did a praiseworthy job and I recommend this book to anyone wanting to spend more time with the Watsons. In addition, I recommend Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady, which I also felt was an admirable attempt to complete another of Jane Austen’s fragments.