hen Jane Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870, he specifically set out to emphasise the crucial differences between the Victorian age and Aunt Jane’s times. The atmosphere his book generates is at once nostalgic and condescending, tying in with what has been seen as the “great polar ideas of the Victorian period” — the idea of progress and the idea of decadence, “twin aspects of an all-encompassing history” (Buckley, 13). As Austen-Leigh laments the lack of Victorian clutter in the middle-class Regency household, remarks on the changes in mealtimes, and details fashions and values of a past age, he caters for a pervasive interest in the recent past and furthermore anticipates the marketing of Austen’s changing images, which has resulted in a wealth of biographies, sequels, and more general merchandise over the last two centuries. Both the incongruities and the impact of the “Victorian Austen” as created by her relatives and her subsequent canonisation have of course been repeatedly reassessed. Roger Sales has suggested that the popularity of Austen-Leigh’s reverent patronising of Austen’s age “can be seen as launching the Austen industry” (3). More recently, Clara Tuite has stressed that “[t]he late nineteenth century saw the beginnings of the popular production of Austen as a national canonical author and as a novelist of ‘green England’” (100). The new interest in Austen that begins in the 1870s, after the publication of the Memoir, Tuite argues, is consolidated in the 1890s with the construction of Austen as a canonical author, with Goldwin Smith’s Life of Jane Austen (1890) for the Great Writers Series. While traditional Austen scholars have repeatedly pointed out how the touching up of Austen’s image — ranging from the literal softening of her portrait to the foregrounding of her domesticity and the consequent forgetting of her biting sense of humour – has distorted popular perceptions, it has now become more common to reassess the significance of Romanticism, “green England”, and nostalgia in her novels. What both critical standpoints ignore is the influence of the rising “Austen industry”, as Sales puts it, on Victorian rewritings of the past, both in fiction and non-fiction. Austen-Leigh’s biography is also a historical account that attempts to capture and recreate the atmosphere of the past:
As my subject carries me back about a hundred years, it will afford occasions for observing many changes gradually effected in the manners and habits of society, which I may think it worth while to mention. They may be little things, but time gives a certain importance even to trifles, as it imparts a peculiar flavour to wine. The most ordinary articles of domestic life are looked on with some interest, if they are brought to light after being long buried; and we feel a natural curiosity to know what was done and said by our forefathers, even though it may be nothing wiser or better that [sic] what we are daily doing or saying ourselves. (Austen-Leigh, 13)
Victorian historical novels preoccupied with Austen’s times proliferate from mid-century onwards. With the beginning of the Austen sequel — now a thriving (sub) genre that is by no means as homogenous as critiques of its worst manifestations might indicate, as I have shown in detail elsewhere (Wagner, “Sequel”, passim) — the “Austen industry”, in fact, commences decades earlier than analyses of her canonisation and the publication of biographies at first suggest. While Austen-Leigh’s Memoir is indeed only preceded by the short “Biographical Notice” written by Jane Austen’s brother, Henry, and published in the posthumous first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, the phenomenon of the Austen sequel can be dated back much earlier than has traditionally been allowed, shedding a different light on the Victorian uses of Jane Austen as well as on the genre of the sequel. Anticipating the plethora of “continuations” of her novels that has swamped the market ever since the bicentenary of Austen’s death, and even more insistently, since the successful TV and film adaptations of the mid-nineties, Austen’s unfinished novels have seen various “completions” from the nineteenth century onwards. As early as 1850, Catherine Hubback published The Younger Sister, a completion of Austen’s unfinished The Watsons inflated into a dramatic Victorian triple-decker. Jane Austen’s niece, Anna Lefroy, had similarly attempted to complete Sanditon, Austen’s last novel, left unfinished at her death, in the 1830s, but her efforts remained fragmentary and were published only in 1983 in the course of what can be described as an upsurge in Austen sequels. Other completions followed — L. Oulton’s The Watsons in 1923 and Edith Brown’s in 1928, Alice Cobbett’s Somehow Lengthened: A Development of “Sanditon” in 1932, written in the wake of the first publication of Sanditon in 1925, John Coates’s continuation of The Watsons in 1958, followed by a continuation for each fragment in the seventies, The Watsons by “Jane Austen and Another” in 1977, which has been described as simply a short version of Hubback’s novel (Nowak, 199), and Marie Dobbs’s Sanditon by “Jane Austen and Another Lady” in 1975. More daringly creative continuations include Phyllis Ann Karr’s Lady Susan, a Regency romance based on an early unfinished novel, and the more recent Emma Watson: The Watsons Completed: Complete and Unabridged (1996) by Joan Aiken, Julia Barrett’s Jane Austen’s Charlotte: Her Fragment of a Last Novel Completed (2000), and D.J. Eden’s Sanditon (2002), which can safely be lumped together with the dozens of Austen sequels that still continue to be published.
While various late twentieth-century “rewritings” of Jane Austen’s novels have made cursory attempts to reintroduce the geopolitics of Austen’s times, it is specifically the early Austen sequels that are self-consciously concerned with the writing of historical fiction. Instead of attempting a pastiche of Austen’s style, as so many twentieth- and twenty-first-century continuations and rewritings do, they retrospectively reassess the past in the context of a historical novel. As I have shown elsewhere, such sequels both introduce contemporary preoccupations and redeploy what are retrospectively considered the concerns of the past (Wagner, “Sequel,” passim). Catherine Hubback’s The Younger Sister continues the fragment of The Watsons, which Austen abandoned at the turn of the century. Hubback clearly writes in the context of the popular genre of the Victorian historical novel and, twenty years before Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, of the Victorian re-creation of Jane Austen and “her” England. Describing a ball, Hubback launches into an excursion into ball dresses throughout the ages and then proceeds to emphasise that her own encompassing viewpoint would of course not have been available to her heroine:
[T]hese were the days of country dances, before quadrilles, waltzes, and polkas had changed the face of the ball-room. There must certainly be some connexion between the style of dress and the style of dancing prevalent in any particular generation. […] But all this is a digression from my story, and cannot have passed through my heroine’s mind, since, sixty years ago, the liveliest fancy would have never pictured an English ball such as we now see it. (vol.1, 30-31)
Novels set in the recent past were a popular and widespread phenomenon in Victorian Britain, ranging from Thackeray’s nostalgic invocation of “a time when the sun used to shine brighter than it appears to do in this latter half of the nineteenth century” (5) in The Newcomes to Elizabeth Gaskell’s fond delineations of the fashions of the past in Cranford and Wives and Daughters. Set predominantly in the 1820s and the beginning of the 1830s, Wives and Daughters, Gaskell’s last novel, written in the mid-sixties and published posthumously in 1866, describes a pre-industrial rural England that is located half a lifetime in the past for the novel’s readers — in “those days before railways” (3) and “before the passing of the Reform Bill” (6). Kathleen Tillotson has significantly emphasised that to read “novels such as Wives and Daughters and Middlemarch without due recognition of their setting in an England of forty years before the date of writing” is to “miss […] much of their quality” (92). Concerned with the socio-political and specifically scientific developments in their past — and their impact on the Victorian age could of course only be reassessed in retrospect — and relating them to the concerns of the present (the latter half of the nineteenth century), they are also at once nostalgic and patronising in their representation of the recent past. As it is put in Wives and Daughters, the habits and value-systems of the past, and especially the recent past, can often seem simply quaint — “droll enough to look back upon” (Gaskell, 2). Gaskell scholars notably disagree as to the extent and meaning of the novel’s use of the past. Anna Unsworth, for instance, suggests that in its idyllic depictions of rural landscapes “we see Mrs Gaskell contemplating the archetypal scene of ‘old England’, […] an image representative of a way of life only ended, finally, by the General Enclosures Act of 1845” (183). E. Holly Pike, on the other hand, speaks of a “gentle mockery of the old ways” (131). A fondness for rural England permeates the novel; and that the idealisation of the past is not always wholehearted does not underscore the sincerity of its affectionate appreciation. Angus Easson has already pointed out that setting Wives and Daughters in the past allows “the action to be completed and contemplated from the satisfaction of distance which shows the whole; and [takes] advantage of sympathies for an age which while past hovers yet in the memory of many readers and so charges events with our own feelings for childhood and youth” (187).
In this use of nostalgia Gaskell’s novel epitomises an important trend in the Victorian novel, as social criticism and historical awareness is mingled with a nostalgia that is far from lapsing into mere sentimentality. Raymond Williams significantly connects nostalgia for the recent past to the creation of fictional “old Englands” in the rising English (or British) novel: “Of course we notice their location in the childhood of their authors, and this must be relevant. Nostalgia, it can be said, is universal and persistent; only other men’s nostalgias offend. A memory of childhood can be said, persuasively, to have some permanent significance.” (12) It is in the context of this popularity of historical fiction about the recent past and the significance of nostalgic narratives in the development of the traditional British novel that Catherine Hubback’s continuation of Austen’s The Watsons has to be read. Tapping into a nostalgia that is by no means merely escapist, Hubback writes a Victorian historical novel about the recent past that reads more like Gaskell than Austen.
- "These were the days...": Victorian Themes in Hubback's Continuation of Jane Austen's The Watsons
- Nostalgia and Mobility in Austen and the "Austen Sequel"
Last modified: 20 November 2002