[Part 2 of the author's "Mrs Hubback's The Younger Sister: The Victorian Austen and the Phenomenon of the Austen Sequel"]

lthough Catherine Hubback's The Youngest Sister (1850) is modelled closely on what had been handed down as Aunt Jane’s intentions by her family, letting Mr Watson die and removing Emma to the household of her brother Robert, it adapts the plot to introduce Victorian themes and popular plot-developments. According to Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, “Mr Watson was soon to die; and Emma to become dependent for a home on her narrow-minded sister-in-law and brother. She was to decline an offer of marriage from Lord Osborne, and mush of the interest of the tale was to arise from Lady Osborne’s love for Mr Howard, and his counter affection for Emma, whom he was finally to marry” (Austen-Leigh, 364). Developing Austen’s sarcastic descriptions of Emma Watson’s sisters and sister-in-law further, Hubback pays tribute to what has come to be known as the “other” Jane Austen (Pickrel, passim). Her equally biting description of Robert’s spoiled daughter and the parental affectation of his wife Jane are similarly much closer to the unsentimental attitude towards children in Austen’s novels than twentieth-century sequels. In L. Oulton’s The Watsons: A Fragment by Jane Austen, published in 1923, for instance, little Augusta Watson is most sentimentally described. While Hubback thus avoids the sentimentalisation of children that is after all one of the main hallmarks of mid-Victorian fiction, Emma Watson’s sufferings abide instead by the themes of the Victorian governess novel, which is indeed anticipated by Jane Fairfax’s fears in Austen’s Emma and can thus be said to be germinate in her treatment of women’s financial concerns.

Like the authors of later continuations of the The Watsons, Hubback foregrounds Lord Osborne’s lack of endearing qualities, turning him into a ludicrous character and thereby taking away much of the suspense created by Austen’s courtship plots. What is more, in taking up the preference for middle-class over “aristocratic” values that is indicated by the juxtaposition of Lord Osborne and his former tutor, Mr Howard, Hubback redefines Austen’s class allegiances and confuses their representation further in conflating the rising middle-class of the Regency with the more broadly spread middle-class of the Victorian age. In what can be seen as the “Victorianisation” of Jane Austen, subsequent sequels of her novels have continued to foster the prevalent perception of Austen as promulgating Victorian (middle-class) values. As a consequence, Lord Osborne becomes even duller, sillier, and more “aristocratic”, his initial similarities to Mr Darcy — a wealthy member of the gentry if not of the nobility — in Austen’s fragment completely erased. In Oulton’s novel, a clumsy and slow-witted Lord Osborne tries in vain “to look as if he had not less in his head than might reasonably be expected” (129); in Aiken’s variation on the theme in Emma Watson (1996), he is described as “fair-haired and had narrow, patrician features; his manner varied between callow, unsure, awkward, and then suddenly supercilious – as if he thought himself above his society, yet was not certain of his welcome.” (36)

Victorian attitudes towards a work-ethic — sharply contrasting with the men and women of no profession and lots of leisure in Austen’s novels — and a more rigid propriety inform Hubback’s The Younger Sister, similarly investing Austen’s plot with a Victorian middle-class ideology: “There goes a young man, who if he had had to work for his bread might have been a useful member of society. But unfortunately the father made a fortune, so the son can only make a fool of himself.” (vol.1, 167) This diatribe against the lazy rake is of course anticipated by eighteenth-century exposures of the aristocracy and its corrupted and corrupting members — all with a resemblance to Samuel Richardson’s Lovelace — and also by Austen’s own critique of “unemployed” young men in her later novels such as Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, who sets out to compromise all young women of his acquaintance out of sheer boredom. Nevertheless, Austen’s gentlemen are still primarily men of property and connected to the gentry, even though the favourable depiction of the Gardiners (who are in trade) in Pride and Prejudice and the eulogy on the Navy in Persuasion mark a shift in class perceptions and, more influentially, literacy and readership at the time.

Most of the changes in The Younger Sister are the results of Catherine Hubback’s reuse of what can be called Austen’s “pre-Victorian” attitudes — pre-Victorian in that they anticipate, but are still sufficiently different from, the values that came to be known as specifically Victorian. The traditional contrast between the flighty and the meek sister, invested with ambiguity in Austen’s novels, would appeal to Victorian readers and is therefore reinstated with its sharp lines of demarcation intact: “‘Oh, I see!’ laughed Penelope, ‘you [Emma Watson] are too good to abuse a sister — quite a Miss Charity or Miss Meek of a good little girl’s prize book.’” (vol.2, 8) The satirically presented Charity and Mercy in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, published in book-form six years before Hubback’s novel, both testify to and poke fun at the popularity of such contrasts. One of the flighty sisters in The Younger Sister expectedly receives “a bitter mortification to her vain mind” (vol.2, 13). Even the desirable Mr Howard is sketched as meek, even demure, lacking in self-confidence: “He was one of those individuals who never feel any confidence in their own merit, who estimate every one in some respect above themselves.” (vol.2, 114) Though seen as a lack in a man, it is preferable to the self-importance of the aristocracy and their snobbish appendages such as alternately boasting and cringing Tom Mosgrove (Musgrave in Austen’s fragment). What is more, with hindsight, Hubback becomes able to explain Mr Howard’s shortcomings through the deployment of a phrenological analysis, which was very fashionable in Victorian Britain, but was hardly that popular during Austen’s time and therefore not invoked in her fragment of The Watsons:

Had phrenology then been in fashion, it is possible that the origin of this weakness would have been discovered in the absence of the bump of self-esteem; but this not being the cause, and in consequence, his head never having been phrenologically examined, I cannot answer for more than the entire absence of the quality, and Mr Howard cannot be brought forward in evidence of any phrenological theory whatever. (vol.2, 114)

In short, not only do Victorian values inform the novel, but popular themes and anxieties become its central concerns. Phrenology is both an important theme and a characterisation device in mid- and late-Victorian fiction, ranging from Charles Dickens’s comical allusions to Wilkie Collins’s The Legacy of Cain (1889), a novel that carefully juxtaposes the pros and cons of a phrenological characterisation, as I have detailed in “Phrenology and Representation of Physical Deviance in Victorian Fiction” as well as briefly in article on nostalgia in Collins’s fiction (Wagner, “Collins”, passim). As in the majority of Victorian novels, in The Younger Sister, phrenology is briefly invoked as a form of characterisation, though Hubback simultaneously uses it to emphasise the novel’s status as a historical novel that reassesses Austen’s (fictional) world in retrospect. Without changing the intended plot, Hubback moreover takes up additional themes and plot-developments that are popular in Victorian fiction, including a corrupted, sleazy doctor and a threatened law court. A flirting physician causes the impoverished Emma considerable distress, tying in with the anxieties about the doctors, charlatans, and pseudo-scientists that figure as the villains of so many Victorian novels, but contrast sharply with the well-meaning nonentities in Austen’s fiction. In addition, Tom Musgrove proposes to Emma’s sister Margaret while drunk and then attempts to deny the engagement. Her brother Robert recognises “a brilliant perspective of litigation, an action for breach of promise of marriage to be conducted” (vol.2, 194). Yet as both Emma and the rich Miss Osborne have been concealed witnesses, and the Osbornes dread an appearance in a public court of justice, Musgrove is — like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice — bribed into marrying Margaret. Nevertheless, the excitement surrounding the proposed law suit together with a substantial introduction of legal jargon connects the novel to the mid-Victorian fiction of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, or Wilkie Collins. Hubback caters at once for her readers’ interest in the recent past and their preference for contemporary concerns.

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Catherine Hubback

Last modified: 2 December 2002