This week my book club meets and we are each bringing a different book by Jane Austen. I chose The Watson’s, which was an unfinished fragment left by Miss Austen when she died. Various members of her family tried to complete the ms using Jane’s notes and her sister’s (Cassandra) recollections. Each of these writers used the original manuscript and then tagged on an ending of his/her own, trying to imitate Jane Austen. The version I read is one completed by John Coates — no relation of the Austen’s — that is a rewrite of the whole book, including the part that Miss Austen left unfinished.

It must have taken considerable confidence to re-write the famous author’s original words, but Coates argues that she left only a rough draft and would have edited it herself if she had ever finished it for publication. The result is seamless. I cannot tell what is original to Austen and what was added by John Coates.

This book was a very enjoyable read, but I felt it hadn’t the depth of Austen’s finished works and lacked the humour and gentle mocking of “society” so wonderfully achieved in the major novels. Still, reading what is essentially a rough draft makes it easier to recognize the main characteristics of a Jane Austen novel.

To use modern terminology, the book follows the Austen “brand.” We have a gaggle of sisters, an ailing father, a great need for husbands, faithless suitors, a worthy but awkward hero, a country ball, gossip, and the many restrictions placed upon young ladies of this age. (If reading about the powerlessness of women of that era, whether rich or poor, doesn’t get your women’s lib passion frothing, you’re missing the point!)

Over the years I’ve read many articles and attended many lectures on “branding.” Often the emphasis is on visual similarity like covers and websites being instantly recognizable as belonging to a particular author. Since Jane Austen’s books were first published, they have gone through many editions and different publishers, so the “look-alike” covers don’t apply. But, I think, her story elements are just as reconizable as production elements like cover-art and author name. 

The branding lectures often focus so much on the art, the colours, the fonts, and the back blurb that they overlook what is between the covers. But, when it comes down to it, don’t readers come back to their favourite authors because of the story, the style, the voice, and the reliability of the writer to spin a tale that resonates and satisfies.

Spending my last week in Jane Austen world, I’ve wondered far from the Canadian frontier, and gold prospectors, and building a new country, but it has been fun to take a ” walk on the tame side,” just for a change.

What about you? Are you a confirmed “Janeite?” Do you have a favourite Jane Austen novel? A favourite character? Or are you firmly in the modern world and have no time for picnics and balls and changing your clothes five times a day?


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