If Emma Watson wasn't inextricably tied to The Watsons, then I would say it was a reasonably good Regency Romance. Not on par with a Georgette Heyer, but not bad. It has a spirited heroine, an unattainable Lord, a nasty Lady, a sympathetic ingénue, a flighty aunt, an unconventional hero, a wonderful red herring, a rattle, a passel of siblings (some rotten, some sound), and a sympathetic parent. But, it also has a suicide in addition to several other deaths, most of which affect the heroine directly and direly. Did Aiken not read Austen? Did she not know that other pens may dwell on misery but Austenland harbors no purveyors of gothic misery? The bit of ivory two inches wide is meant to contain a recognizable world, filled with realistic people who have common human failings but whose stories are worth telling. The stories in Emma Watson, while somewhat interesting, aren't memorable because they basically are contrived.
The many ways in which Aiken pays homage to Austen range from sweet to cloying. The Watsons was written between 1803 and 1805, while the Austen family (mother, father, Jane, and Cassandra) were living in Bath after Mr. Austen retired. She abandoned it after her father died in 1805. It is assumed that the story itself--that of sisters whose father is ailing and who hasn't enough fortune to enable his daughters to live independently--was too close to home, too painful for Austen to complete. Plus, she didn't have time to write. She needed to figure out how to live.
Aiken writes the father's death into her story, casting Emma into a den of lions (aka siblings). She also manages to kill off a lovely friend of Emma's, Anna Blake, echoing the tragic death of Austen's beloved friend and mentor, Anna Lefroy, who died in a riding accident shortly before Mr. Austen's death. I was personally shocked by this fictional death, and even more so by Aiken's cold-hearted murder of Anna's delightful son, Charles, with whom Emma dances in Austen's manuscript (one of the sweetest scenes Austen ever wrote in my 'umble opinion).
Aiken dips into both Austen's life as well as her published novels for plot points, turns of phrase, and characters. Emma's older brother Robert and his wife Jane bear a remarkable resemblance to John and Fanny Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Admiral Crawford and his nephew Henry (Mansfield Park) rent an estate from the nasty noble family. Emma Watson is offered the opportunity to dedicate the next volume of her late father's sermons, which she is publishing, to the Prince Regent, and actually meets him! I confess that my eyes got a definite aerobics workout with all the eye-rolling I indulged in.
Yet...despite all these allusions to Austen, the one thing that Aiken wasn't able to emulate was Austen's wit. The plot was convoluted and the characters were outrageous, but it just wasn't much fun. I love the humor in Austen--her sly barbs, her razor sharp remarks that bite through the shrug of recognition, her compassionate understanding that is tinged with grace and goodwill and a smile. There was none of that in Emma Watson. Truth be told, there was precious little of it in The Watsons. I like to think that if Austen had lived longer, she might have revisited this story and imbued it with more humor than she could muster when she started it.
I think the premise of The Watsons is sound, and I think that Emma Watson has all the trappings of an Austen heroine. I don't think that Aiken did justice to her and I likely won't bother with another of her continuations or completions, but I did enjoy getting to know Austen's fragment again...and I know that she never would have killed off that charming Charles Blake! Grrr!
If you want to see for yourself whether I'm hopelessly prejudiced or not, I am holding a giveaway for my copy of The Watsons and Emma Watson. I'm happy to send it anywhere in the world. Simply post a comment below along with your email address. I will be accepting entries until Friday, August 29 at 8 pm MT.
Final note on The Watsons—I found this fascinating article recently, Jane Austen Used Pins to Edit Her Abandoned Manuscript, The Watsons. Basically Austen edited this manuscript by pinning strips of paper with new text over the existing words. The original “cut and paste” editing technique. My first thought was that this was a technique that wouldn’t have occurred to a man, and then I wondered whether she invented and used it more than just for The Watsons.
Giveaway winner: Mary Preston from Australia!