When I tell people, especially fellow writers, that I’ve completed The Watsons, one of Austen’s unfinished novels, the reaction has mostly been either laughter or an eyebrow arch that rises so high, it inevitably disappears beneath their hairline. And how can I blame them when my own reaction, on first hatching the plan, was to laugh out loud too?
In September 2017, I found myself on a flight to Bath to attend the city’s annual Jane Austen festival. My debut novel, The Longbourn Letters, was more widely celebrated than I’d anticipated or was prepared for. I was also voluntarily curating a six-month long Austen bicentenary celebration, as well as working full-time and raising a husband, a three year-old and a six year-old. I was exhausted.
Novice that I was, I felt pressure to quickly produce another book in order to maximise the exposure I had received from my debut. Thus began my efforts with the adventures of Captain McCarthan – a kind of Bertie-Wooster-on-a-horse tale of foolishness, comedy and luck. The story, however, wasn’t working. I had struggled with it for weeks and as I sat on that flight to Bath, I had the lightbulb moment as to how I could fix it – the horse needed dialogue! It was at that moment I realised that my marbles were officially lost and perhaps it would be best if stepped away from Captain McCarthan and his horse.
Immersing myself in Jane Austen’s life in Bath was exactly what I needed. I walked in slow-motion, hugging trees that might have been around in Austen’s time, placing my feet ever so mindfully on the cobbles she must have walked on and indulging in my obsession for 48 hours. Relaxed, rejuvenated and reconnected with Austen, I sat cheerfully on the flight home and decided that I would park Captain McCarthan and his talking horse and, instead, embrace my craziness and permit myself to have the audacity to finish one of Austen’s incomplete works, The Watsons.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t occasionally overtaken with imposter syndrome with “who do you think you are to be touching Austen” intrusive thoughts. I felt that perhaps I wasn’t qualified enough and my background – growing up in a rural working class family – ten of us in a cottage without running water or heating (until I was fourteen) was far from the ‘shades of Pemberley’.
I never encountered this insecurity with The Longbourn Letters. Yes, I was “borrowing” Austen’s minor characters, Mr Bennet and Mr Collins, and making them my protagonists but I was not competing with Austen’s own words. I was creating my own and adding some new characters to boot. These new minor characters included the charismatic Reverend Smellie, the eccentric inventor Mr Lucas, the carriage-driving Baroness Herbert and Reverend Green (who walks an invisible dog). I threw myself into the comic element – a home subject, and pretended Austen wasn’t looking over my shoulder.
But when it came to The Watsons – taking over the baton from one whose works “interpret, critique and comment upon the British landed gentry” (Wikipedia), I was surely at sea. Perhaps, I thought, if I was a member of the English aristocracy – a Lord Archer or a Baron Fellowes, I would have had more of a right to finish The Watsons. Thankfully, whenever those thoughts crossed my mind, I banished them quickly. Jane Austen had no income until a few years before her death when her books were finally published (she too knew what it was like to receive the rejection letter). While she had wealthy extended family, her own were considered the poor relatives.
Some experts claim that Austen abandoned The Watsons, which she started in Bath in 1803, as the story was too close to her own. In The Watsons, four unmarried sisters live with their ill and poor clergyman father, facing a life of dependence on the goodwill and charity of extended family if he dies and they have not married. Such insecurity and vulnerability were preoccupations in Austen’s own life. In a case of life imitating art, Austen’s clergyman father, George Austen, died soon after, leaving a wife and two daughters seeking cheap living arrangements in Bath – their standards sinking with every move of home they were forced to make. They had become financially dependent on Jane’s brothers (who had their own large families also to provide for) but who saw them finally settle, permanently, at Chawton Cottage, Hampshire.
As an Austen fan, I see my completing of The Watsons as true to her style and wit. One of the greatest compliments so far, is that early readers and reviewers cannot tell where Austen finishes and Servitova takes over. I love Austen and maybe that is qualification enough.
The Watsons will be launched on November 29th in the Robinson Library as part of the Armagh Georgian Festival. This is followed by launches at Bishopstown Library, Cork on December 3rd (11am) hosted by the Cork Janeites, Narrative 4, Limerick on December 5th (6pm) and Ballyroan Library, Dublin (7pm).
(c) Rose Servitova
About The Watsons:
Can she honour her family and stay true to herself? Emma Watson returns to her family home after fourteen years with her wealthy and indulgent aunt. Now more refined than her siblings, Emma is shocked by her sisters’ flagrant and desperate attempts to ensnare a husband. To the surprise of the neighbourhood, Emma immediately attracts the attention of eligible suitors – notably the socially awkward Lord Osborne, heir to Osborne Castle – who could provide her with a home and high status if she is left with neither after her father’s death. Soon Emma finds herself navigating a world of unfamiliar social mores, making missteps that could affect the rest of her life. How can she make amends for the wrongs she is seen to have committed without betraying her own sense of what is right?Jane Austen commenced writing The Watsons over two hundred years ago, putting it aside unfinished, never to return and complete it. Now, Rose Servitova, author of acclaimed humour title, The Longbourn Letters: The Correspondence between Mr Collins and Mr Bennet has finished Austen’s manuscript in a manner true to Austen’s style and wit.
“A gift for Austen fans everywhere – full of wit, informed imagination and palpable affection for Austen’s characters” – Natalie Jenner, author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY
“Very satisfying, sometimes moving & often laugh-out-loud hilarious.” – THE JANE AUSTEN REGENCY WORLD MAGAZINE
Order your copy online here.