November 18, 1996 12:00 PM

by Joan Aiken

Only a brave writer would attempt to complete a novel begun by Jane Austen. But Aiken, who has written several Austen-inspired works, was game after reading a 17,500-word fragment the gifted English novelist had put aside when her father died in 1805.

Emma Watson is both more action-packed and less satisfying than a real Austen tale. It, too, concerns the mating rites of the upper classes in early 19th-century England. Emma is a relatively impoverished daughter of a country parson with genteel connections. When several potential husbands surface, Aiken wisely has her choose the one Austen would have favored, an officer in the Royal Navy. But Emma also expresses some decidedly 20th-century ideas—that, for example, work outside the home may be a woman’s true destiny. And it seems unlikely that Austen would ever have used the phrase “pop the question” when talking about a proposal. These quibbles aside, Emma Watson is a charming entertainment, evoking the atmosphere if not the subtle genius of Austen’s beloved books. (St. Martin’s, $20.95)

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