In one of those coincidences that we often bother about in fiction, my local Jane Austen group scheduled Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, The Watsons, for our July discussion. A coincidence because, if you are an Austen fan, you’ll know that just this week the manuscript was sold at auction for nearly £1 million. Thank goodness it was bought by an institution – the Bodleian at Oxford. Next time I’m in England I know where I’ll be going!
Anyhow, onto The Watsons. This unfinished novel was written in Bath probably around 1803-1805, though there is not consensus about this. A common belief is that she abandoned it after her father’s death due to sadness and the resultant uncertainty in her living conditions. Whether this is true or not, it is a fact that she didn’t take up serious writing again until she settled in Chawton in 1809 – which gives rise to the more interesting challenge. That is, why didn’t she take this one up again as she did with other early works such as First impressions which became Pride and prejudice. Enough of that, however, as all we can do is speculate. Let’s look at the work instead.
English novelist Margaret Drabble describes The Watsons as “tantalising, delightful and highly accomplished”. And it certainly is tantalising. We have only 68 pages (manuscript count). The story concerns 19-year-old Emma Watson who has returned, after living with her well-off aunt and uncle for 14 years, to her “poor” family. At the time of her return, just her oldest sister, the 28-year-old Elizabeth, is at home with their invalid father. The family however comprises four daughters and two sons, of whom only one son is married. The main plot-line is, of course, likely to be marriage, and so in these first chapters we are introduced to three men who could vie for Emma’s hand. We are also introduced to the characters belonging to Austen’s favourite subject, “3 or 4 families in a Country Village”. We know, from her sister Cassandra, how Austen intended the plot to play out. So tantalising that we never saw her do it!
Drabble’s next word is “delightful” and it is that too … because it contains those wonderful character descriptions and social observations that we have come to expect of Austen. I’ll share just a couple. The first one describes Emma (at the Ball where we meet three potential beaux):
… a lively Eye, a sweet smile, & an open Countenance, gave beauty to attract, & expression to make that beauty improve on acquaintance …
Contrast this to the following description of her sister Margaret:
Margaret was not without beauty; she had a slight, pretty figure, & rather wanted Countenance than good features; – but the sharp & anxious expression of her face made her beauty in general little felt.
There are also those delightful little set pieces we are used to finding in Austen, pieces that illuminate character as much as they move the plot along. One concerns Emma’s offer to dance with a 10-year-old boy when the snooty aristocrat Miss Osborne, doesn’t follow through on her promise to dance with him. “Oh Uncle”, the young lad says to one of the possible beaux, “do look at my partner. She’s so pretty.”
Sweet as she is, Emma proves herself to be well able – rather like Elizabeth Bennet – to hold her own. She refuses to pander to the flirtatious Tom:
Emma’s calm curtsey in reply must have struck him as very unlike the encouraging warmth he had been used to receive from her Sisters, & and gave him probably the novel sensation of doubting his own influence, & of wishing for more attention than she bestowed.
The last sentence of The Watsons starts, “Emma was of course uninfluenced …”. How sad we didn’t get to see more of this resourceful, delightful heroine.
Finally, “highly accomplished“. I’m not sure I totally agree with Drabble here. What we have is intriguing, tantalising us with its potential. It demonstrates much of what we know and love about Austen – and yet, despite evidence of extensive editing in the recently auctioned manuscript, it has (to my mind anyhow) an element of clumsiness. I find this particularly in an overuse of dialogue to convey information which the characters involved would surely already know – such as Elizabeth’s saying to her sister, Emma, “though I am nine years older”. It works well enough in the context but I believe the later, experienced Austen would have better conveyed this through authorial comment.
Nonetheless, it is accomplished. Its realism is remarkable and, like all her novels, it is clear from the beginning just what the targets are going to be. In this case, I see a major theme being the contrast between exterior and interior “refinement”. The fragment we have focuses heavily on the distinctions of class, often contrasting the superficiality of those who possess this so-called “class” with Emma whose refinement is more of the interior kind. This has the makings of a fascinating novel.
And yet, while it was not to be, we can point to many characters in later books who seem to draw, albeit with variations, from the characters here: the invalid father in Emma, the money-fixated brother in Sense and sensibility, the independent-thinking heroine in Pride and prejudice, the flirty young man of means in Mansfield Park, to name just a few. For whatever reason, Jane Austen did not return to this manuscript, but it’s obvious that she did not forget the characters nor some of the ideas behind their creation.
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, The minor works (ed. R.W. Chapman)
London: Oxford University Press, 1969