The Watsons Completed
Another of Aiken's playful yet hearty romantic fancies, with a cast lifted (respectfully) from the luminously peopled novels of Jane Austen. Aiken's previous novel, Eliza's Daughter (1994), focused on an offstage figure from Sense and Sensibility who confronts the former, now unhappy, Dashwood sisters. Aiken has wisely jettisoned attempts at irony and witty pyrotechnics; still, her cast members here, borrowed from Austen, take some entertaining turns. In Austen's bleak and sketchy The Watsons, probably begun in 1804 and never finished, Elizabeth Watson confides to sister Emma, with whom she has been reunited after Emma's 14 years with kind Aunt Maria, grim thoughts on their single state: "You know we must marry . . . it is very bad to grow old and be poor and laughed at." But that seems to be the fate of these young women, now in their 20s, for their father, a gentle clergyman, is quite poor. The soon-to-be family head is pompous, unsympathetic brother Robert, married to horrid Jane, "callow" and unhelpful. Their sisters Penelope and Margaret are generally unpleasant. Aiken picks up Austen's tale and carries it imaginatively along. Penelope marries nice, elderly Dr. Harding, and buys, renovates, and moves into a grand, if decaying mansion. But heartaches abound: Elizabeth's former suitor marries another; kind brother Sam is refused marriage to pleasant Mary Edwards, pledged to dim Lord Osborne. Emma is not attracted to curate Adam, because he's tethered to the dowager Lady Osborne. And dear Aunt Maria has vanished after having borne up under the weight of a miserable marriage for many years. Before the close, when lovers will traipse off hand in hand, there will be reversals and upheavals; a fatal accident; a destructive theft and elopement; disclosure of an old scandal; a rescue; and even a rousing horse race. As always, for those attuned to Austen, and to Aiken's imaginative, respectful variations, simply charming.