To my shame, I never had got round to reading Jane Austen’s unfinished work, ‘The Watsons’ until now. Well, that’s not quite true. I began to read it in my early twenties, and got distracted by something else and never got back to it. In a way, it’s a comfort remembering that, because since then people have done that with books of mine, and it’s no compliment, but if it can happen with Jane Austen then it can happen with any author.
I suppose some of my reluctance to read it has been because it is unfinished, but even that doesn’t really make sense. After all, my favourite novella is Pushkin’s ‘Dubrovsky’ (well, maybe equal first with Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’) and that’s unfinished, with only an outline to indicate what happened to Dubrovsky, his life as a robber captain, and what happened with his true love Maria.
Anyway, I read it recently and I was impressed. In fact, I definitely much prefer to either ‘Northanger Abbey’ or ‘Persuasion’ and rather wish Jane Austen had finished this work rather than either of those.
Unluckily, this novel was begun during the period of Jane Austen’s life when she was least creatively productive, the time when her parents retired to Bath. It has been argued that she was unhappy in Bath, and that was why she completed no works during this period. However, it could also be argued that she had a busier social life in this period than she did earlier and later when she lived in the countryside, and this was why she produced so little.
It has also been argued that ‘The Watsons’ contains an exploration of various themes that she later enlarged in her published novels, and this was why the author never finished it.
This work, begun in 1803, seems to have been abandoned iin 1805, following her father’s death.
The plot is straightforward but intriguing. Emma Watson been brought up by a wealthy aunt and her uncle. After his death, her aunt married a fortune hunting army captain, made all her money over to him, and sent Emma back to her family of origin.
They are hard up and the daughters, without dowries, are desperate to find suitable husbands. Their widower father is an invalid who clearly has not long to live. Emma has three sisters and two brothers. The eldest brother, a solicitor, has married a woman with a comfortable dowry. They live in Croydon (then, of course, a village some miles outside London) whose wife condescendingly invites her unmarried sisters for visits.
Emma only finds her eldest sister Elizabeth congenial. She, being unmarried at twenty-nine, would be considered an old maid by the standards of time. Her other two sisters are bad tempered, vain, and combine self delusion with shabby ethical standards. Margaret is convinced that the local heartthrob, the handsome and independently wealthy Tom Musgrave, is in love with her. Sadly, like Henry Crawford in ‘Mansfield Park’ he is a heartless flirt who never means anything serious by his attentions. She has learnt nothing by the fact that he trifled with both of her sisters before her.
The Watsons are friendly with a richer family called Edwards, who are in the habit of inviting the daughters to stay overnight for one of their balls. It is at one of these that Emma first meets the titled Osborne family. The socially awkward and selfish Lord Osborne is interested in Emma, and so are the family tutor, Mr Howard, and the fickle Tom Musgrave.
Meanwhile, the Watson daughters’ position is made the more precarious by the fact that Mr Watson’s health is deteriorating. The younger Watson brother, Sam, is interested in the Edwards’ daughter, but she is more taken with a dashing army Captain of whom her parents disapprove…
I enjoyed this fragment. As it was not finished, it would hardly be fair to judge it as if it was. The characters may seem to be too simply portrayed as either admirable or inadmirable, as Kate Atkinson suggests in the foreward to the edition I am reading, but this is hardly surprising in a manuscript. Characters invariably develop as an author goes on with the work. She comments too that Emma Watson seems to be in no need of learning any lessons in wisdom, unlike the later Emma or Elizabeth Bennett.
This certainly doesn’t suit modern taste, but we do not know that even if Emma is not guilty of the rash overconfidence of the other two, she may not have lessons to learn. It isn’t my recollection that Elinor in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ learns a huge amount – she, like this Emma, is very wise for someone of nineteen when the story begins.
The editor also comments on the amount of ‘tell not show’ in the opening pages. However, that was surely a style of the times – readers expected a leisurely introduction to the location and the characters. In fact, in depicting Elizabeth driving Emma in their pony and trap to her first ball in the neighbourhood, meanwhile speaking of the main characters and so introducing them, Jane Austen opens the story more briskly than many.
Overall, then, I enjoyed the story, and particularly the flashes of typical Austen wit:- ‘I had rather be a teacher in a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.’