Thoughts about Books: The Watsons, by Jane Austen and John Coates

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Jane Austen is known for her six main novels, but she wrote a few other novellas and fragments that aren’t particularly well-known, except to her die-hard fans. Personally, up until now I’d only read the main six. But a friend lent me a copy of The Watsons, an unfinished novel by Austen that was then finished by a man named John Coates.

The Watsons begins with Emily Watson (called “Emma” in the original manuscript, and changed to “Emily” by Coates, presumably so as not to confuse her with Emma Woodhouse) being driven into town by her older sister Elizabeth, so that she can attend a ball. We find out that there are six siblings in the Watson family, two boys and four girls. Their father is a relatively poor clergyman. It turns out that Emily, who is the youngest Watson sibling, doesn’t actually know any of her brothers and sisters. She was raised by a wealthy aunt, and is only now returning to her father’s house after her aunt was widowed and re-married someone who doesn’t want to be responsible for Emily.

As they ride to the ball, Elizabeth tells Emily all about her siblings and the other people in town whom she will encounter at the ball. Thus, we learn about these people alongside Emily.

Interjecting Thought: It is so strange to me how normal it was in Jane Austen’s day for rich relatives to adopt their poorer relatives as an act of charity. Imagine your loving parents sending you away to a rich aunt’s house so that you could get a better education, and then never really seeing you again. Bizarre! But it happens all the time in Austen novels.

Emily meets three important/eligible men at the ball: A Mr. Musgrave, who seems to be the Mr. Wickham/Frank Churchill/Mr. Willoughby/Henry Crawford of the story; A Mr. Howard, who seems to hold promise as a proper love interest; and Lord Osborne.

Lord Osborne is by far the most interesting of the three. Honestly it’s hard to tell, from the fragment that Austen wrote, if she intended him to be more of a Mr. Collins or a Mr. Darcy. His defining characteristic is that, though he is rich and thus considered a “good catch,” he is painfully awkward. He doesn’t dance, but he immediately takes a liking to Emily, so he asks his friend to dance with her. Then, he spends the whole dance standing basically at his friend’s elbow, chatting with him, so that he’s sort-of in the same sphere as Emily.

Besides these three men, Austen also introduces us to about half of the Watson family. Of the six Watson siblings, only one, her older brother Robert, is married. He shows up with his wife fairly early on. That leaves three Watson siblings, Margaret, Penelope, and Sam, who are mentioned but never seen when Austen’s fragment ends.

Austen allegedly told her sister Cassandra a few things about how she planned to end the novel. She was going to kill off Mr Watson, Emma’s (Emily’s) father, and make her have to go live with Robert and his wife. Lord Osborne was going to ask her to marry him, and she was going to refuse. Lady Osborne, Lord Osborne’s widowed mother, was going to be in love with Mr. Howard, while Mr. Howard loved Emma. Eventually, Emma would marry Mr. Howard.

In the years since Austen’s death, several people have attempted to finish her novel. The typical approach was to leave Austen’s work untouched, and write an ending using the exact plot points that Austen intended to use. This often resulted in pretty short books, about half of it being Austen’s work, and half being new work.

John Coates took a different approach to ending Austen’s book. In fact, his Author’s Note at the end, explaining how he went about the process, is one of the most interesting parts of the whole book, in my opinion.

First, Coates prioritized making an interesting novel over being unflinchingly faithful to Austen’s legacy. Although he used some of the plot points that Austen had told her sister about, he didn’t use all of them. He also, *gasp,* changed a few small things in the original manuscript. First, as I’ve already mentioned, he changed “Emma” to “Emily.” There were a few other word choices he tweaked. But the most interesting thing, to me, was what he did with the character of Penelope. Penelope is only mentioned in Austen’s fragment, but Coates decided he wanted to make her one of the most interesting characters in the novel. So he invented a personality for her, and then tweaked Austen’s manuscript slightly to add hints about her character so that she made more sense when she finally showed up.

Coates also made his novel much longer than other manuscript-finishers had. He thought that Austen’s fragment seemed like the opening to a long, leisurely novel, so he wrote a long, leisurely novel. Then, when it became clear that it was a bit too long and leisurely and needed some trimming down, he trimmed the whole book, including the Austen section.

Interesting, huh? It’s so weird, because it just seems wrong somehow to even dream of editing Austen’s work. And yet, it was an unfinished fragment. Logically, if Austen had finished it, she also would have edited it somewhat.

But I’m sure you’re wondering, “Did it work? Was it a good novel? Did it feel like reading a new Jane Austen novel?”

Well, yes and no.

I very much enjoyed reading the book. In fact, if Austen had finished it, I could see it being one of my favorites. Mostly because it featured a family very similar to my family: six clergyman’s children, all of marriageable age, with only the oldest son actually married.

Still, even though the story was fun, with Lord Osborne and Penelope being perhaps the most interesting characters, it was very clear that this wasn’t a “real” Austen novel. I’m not 100% sure what it was that made it feel inauthentic. Coates was really good at making the language “match up” with the way she wrote. I think, overall, it was a little too interesting to be authentic Austen. The things that happened seemed a bit more dramatic than the things that usually happen in Austen novels. At the same time, it lacked Austen’s famous insights into the oddities of human nature.

You know how it feels to watch a movie that’s based on a book by your favorite author? Like, you sort-of get the same feeling you got from reading her books, but it’s not quite the same? But you still enjoy it? That was roughly the same feeling I got from reading this book.

This is the third time, in my recollection, that I’ve read a book which was started by one person and finished by someone else. The first was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and the second was The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones. In all three cases, the finisher was vastly inferior to the starter. However, The Watsons didn’t upset me nearly as much as the previous two did. I think that, since Austen had written such a small piece of the whole book, It felt less like an Austen book that Coates had finished, and more like a Coates book that Austen had started. The ending didn’t make me feel cheated.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Have you read The Watsons, either Austen’s original fragment or someone’s attempt to finish it? What are your thoughts, in general, of people finishing other people’s unfinished books?

One response to “Thoughts about Books: The Watsons, by Jane Austen and John Coates

  1. I haven’t read The Watson’s and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of it but it sounds like something I would enjoy. As far as someone else finishing another author’s work I don’t know. I wonder would the original author would approve? Would the second author capture the essence of what the original is trying to say in his or her novel? Would the second mess/ edit it so much, that it’s a completely different novel?
    Its like this newfangled versions of classic hymns that sound completely different from the original. Most take away the message the original hymn writer was trying to get across. But that’s just my opinion.
    Ha ha! Now after looking at what I typed, maybe unfinished work should be left unfinished. I hope other people comment as I’m curious about other thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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