According to the Republic of Pemberley website, The Watsons,
was written by Jane Austen about 1803-1805, but was not published until 1871, as part of James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir (Jane Austen had left it untitled; the title "The Watsons" was provided by Austen-Leigh). It describes Emma Watson's return, after a long absence, to her family, who are on the lower financial fringes of the "genteel". She attracts the interest of a nobleman (and according to tradition in Jane Austen's family, she was later to receive and refuse an offer of marriage from him, and marry a clergyman). It is not clear why Jane Austen did not continue this fragment . . .Though the fragment and Aiken's story are contained in one edition, I will "split" them briefly to write about Austen's story and probably spend more time explaining the characters in The Watsons, as they are also used in Emma Watson.
I confess: I had not read The Watsons before reading this edition and Aiken's take on it. It felt very odd to be reading something of Jane Austen's that was not as dear and familiar to me as the six completed novels are.
The Watsons begins with Emma Watson, newly returned to her family home, after living with a beloved aunt for 14 years, and being taken by her eldest sister Elizabeth to a nearby village, where she will stay the night with the Edwards family and attend her first ball. Emma's family is rather poor, her father is often ill, and she doesn't really know any of them, brothers Robert and Sam or sisters Elizabeth, Penelope, and Margaret. After the death of her mother, Emma had been sent to live with an aunt, who taught her fine manners and appreciation for nicer things.
As they travel to the ball, Elizabeth tells Emma about their sisters and some of the people she will undoubtedly be meeting at the ball, including the dashing and (possibly) dangerous Tom Musgrave who is "a young man of very good fortune, quite independent, and remarkably agreeable, a universal favourite wherever he goes. Most of the girls hereabouts are in love with him, or have been" (2). Apparently their sister Penelope was hoping he would look her way, but she's a bit troublesome (having encouraged Elizabeth's love to marry elsewhere in the past). Elizabeth hopes Tom dances with Emma, but does not want Emma to fall for him. Also mentioned are the Edwards, whose daughter Sam Watson is hoping to marry, but who might prefer a Captain Hunter; Lord Osborne, his mother, Lady Osborne, his sister, Miss Osborne, and their party, which Emma later learns includes a Mr. Howard, former tutor to Lord Osborne and a clergyman, his sister, Mrs. Blake, and one of her sons, Charles, who is about ten.
At the ball, Emma meets many people, dances, and is admired by the gentlemen. At one point, she shows kindness by dancing with little Charles Blake, when Miss Osborne, who had promised to dance with him goes off with another partner. Emma instantly wins the gratitude of Mrs. Blake, her brother, and the attention of Lord Osborne and Tom Musgrave.
Much of the rest of The Watsons entails Emma's interactions with these characters and her family. Her eldest brother Robert, who is quite stuffy, and his wife Jane (who reminds one of a cross between Fanny Ferrars from S&S and Mrs. Elton from Emma), come for a visit, bringing another sister, Margaret, who appears friendly but is really very petty, dislikes Emma's fine manners (though Emma does not put on airs), and hopes Tom Musgrave will fall in love with her.
The novel fragment ends with Robert and Jane wanting Emma to come for a visit, but Emma would rather stay with her poor father, who is nearing his end.
The Watsons, obviously, cuts off very abruptly, but fortunately for us, Emma Watson by Joan Aiken begins where Jane Austen left off and imagines the fates of Jane's characters. There are many twists and turns, loves and deaths. Emma begins to know her siblings better (which is not always a good thing). Emma becomes friends with Mrs. Blake and has a bit of a crush on Mr. Howard, who might become engaged to Lady Osborne. Her trying sister Penelope shows up married to an older man named Dr. Harding, who is rich, and buys a big local house, which first must be remodeled. This leads to Emma meeting a Captain Fremantle, with whom she feels an instant connection. Tragedy strikes when Emma's father dies. Emma and Elizabeth, who have no income, are to be parceled off to live with their siblings.
The story ends tidily with reunions, marriages, and just rewards. I was quite glad to read it after reading The Watsons because that fragment had no ending. Really, one hardly gets into the story before it abruptly stops. If I hadn't been able to read Emma Watson I would have been quite unsatisified. Aiken did an excellent job of taking Jane Austen's characters and developing them more fully, as characters are often developed in full-length novels. I did not like every twist and turn Aiken introduced, but I was happy with Emma's ending. She deserved nothing less.
I recommend The Watsons and Emma Watson to any Jane Austen fan or anyone who likes an interesting story. It is in bookstores now (and indeed, I saw a copy or two in one last week!) or at Amazon.com. If you read it, do come back and tell us how you liked it!
Book Information: The Watsons and Emma Watson by Jane Austen and Joan Aiken (Sourcebooks Landmark; ISBN: 1-2033-1229-1; $14.95; 256 pages; paperback)