Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Watsons: An Unfinished Fragment by Jane Austen

The Watsons is one of Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscripts (only about 17 ½ thousand words) and the only one from her time in Bath. It is well known that Austen truly hated Bath and it was an unhappy time in her life. It is thought that Austen began writing The Watsons sometime in 1804 and then abandoned the manuscript after her father’s death in 1805.

The Watsons begins with the heroine Emma Watson returning home for the first time. In infancy she was given to a more affluent and childless Aunt to raise as was particularly customary during the time if a family had too many mouths to feed. Emma’s Aunt has remarried and so Emma has been sent home. Where once she may have expected to be given a dowry she now has nothing and is cast into obscurity. Emma has been raised in more refinement than her poor siblings and now she must navigate a way of life where she is poorer than she is used too and social norms are different. In addition, while this is her family they are also complete strangers. It is a difficult situation to be sure for Emma.

Mr. Watson, Emma’s father, is shown as a sickly man who perhaps never quite recovered from the death of his wife years prior. Emma is one of six children. Elizabeth is the oldest and has taken to running the small parish household. There is also Penelope and Margaret. There are two brothers, Sam and Robert. Robert is married to Jane who we can tell, even from her brief appearance in the fragment, that she is insipid and close minded.

We are introduced to two possible suitors for Emma. There is the rich, titled landowner, Lord Osborne, who first lays eyes on her at a ball and is intrigued. Then there is Mr. Howard who is the former tutor to Lord Osborne and now the clergyman in the parish of Osborne Castle. Mr. Howard also meets Emma at the same ball that she is introduce to Lord Osborne. What is a girl to do with two different choices?

Well we do not know as the fragment ends quite abruptly.

It is suggested, and rightly so if you know Austen that Emma will turn down a marriage proposal from Lord Osborne and in the end marry Mr. Howard.

In the memoir by Austen-Leigh the following is stated:

When the author’s sister, Cassandra, showed the manuscript of this work to her nieces, she also told them something of the intended story; for with this dear sister---though, I believe with no one else---Jane seems to have talked freely of any work she might have on hand. Mr. Watson was soon to die; and Emma to become dependent on her narrow-minded sister-in-law and brother. She was to decline an offer of marriage from Lord Osborne, and much of the interest in 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, p.152, Penguin Classics edition.).

It is only a wonder what Austen would have done had she continued the story. The stage has been set for a classic story, peppered with Austen’s wit and social satire. In fact Austen was almost exhibiting a bygone era which would have only made the story all that more delightful.

We can enjoy her fragment for what it is knowing that had she finished it there would have been another delightful Austen heroine to add to the mix. There could have been an Emma 1 and Emma 2 or perhaps we would have differentiated by calling them Woodhouse and Watson.

It has been suggested that The Watsons is an early manuscript for Emma, but given the foundation set for the story I cannot agree and can only say I believe that it was to be entirely different from Emma and would have been a charming addition to the Austen works which we enjoy today.

I just finished the John Coates completion of The Watsons and will be posting my review here soon. There is also a completion by Joan Aiken recently rereleased by Sourcebooks as The Watsons & Emma Watson. In the meantime if you have not already you should pick up a copy of Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscript of The Watsons or if you have money to burn you can buy the original manuscript which has recently come up for action.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

I've read about half, but haven't finished. I have it on my Kindle app :)