Eighth in the series We Want More Austen! about the less-known works of Jane Austen.
How to draw a character in four sentences: At the start of Jane Austen’s youthful fragment “The Three Sisters,” Miss Mary Stanhope writes to a friend, “I am the happiest creature in the World, for I have received an offer of marriage from Mr Watts. It is the first I have ever had & I hardly know how to value it enough. How I will triumph over the Duttons! I do not intend to accept it, at least I beleive not, but as I am not quite certain I gave him an equivocal answer & left him.”
Do we need any more information than this to take Miss Stanhope’s measure? Or to pity Mr. Watts—even as we learn that he is plain, disagreeable, ill-tempered, peevish, jealous, stingy, and willing to marry either of Mary’s younger sisters if she should refuse him?
This is the Marriage Mart at its most baldly cynical. Mary Stanhope’s mother urges her to make up her mind immediately, under pain of losing Mr. Watts’s proposal to one of her younger sisters, “because he wishes to be allied to the Family & because they are as pretty as you are” (shades of Mr. Collins!). Lest you imagine that this tale will be softened by sisterly affection, we soon learn that Mary’s sisters, Sophy and Georgiana, are scheming to trick her into accepting Mr. Watts so they won’t have to—though they will, for the money and position he offers, if she doesn’t.
Almost resolved to marry Mr. Watts, Mary negotiates. She demands a new carriage, painted blue spotted with silver;
two hundred pounds a year in pin money; a saddle horse, a suit of fine lace, “and an infinite number of the most valuable Jewels”!
The list goes on, to the point of hilarity—added servants, his house refurnished, seasons spent in Bath and London, a greenhouse . . .
And her mother gets in on the act, supporting her claims like a procuress. The story continues:
—“And pray Miss Stanhope (said Mr Watts) What am I to expect from you in return for all this.”
—“Expect? why you may expect to have me pleased.”
— “It would be odd if I did not. Your expectations Madam are too high for me, & I must apply to Miss Sophy who perhaps
may not have raised her’s so much.”
Sophy promptly ups the ante by saying that in addition to Mary’s demands she expects her husband to be
—“good-tempered and Chearful; to consult my Happiness in all his Actions, & to love me with Constancy & Sincerity.”
— Mr Watts stared. “These are very odd Ideas truly young Lady. You had better discard them before you marry, or
you will be obliged to do it afterwards.”
The negotiations continue for a considerable stretch in this vein, but ultimately neither Mr. Watts nor Miss Stanhope is deterred from the match, and as the fragment comes to an abrupt end, preparations for the nuptials are under way.
What are we to make of this unromantic farce? It is a far cry from the satires of sentimental fiction that make up the bulk of Jane Austen’s juvenile work. The tone most closely approaches that of Lady Susan, but it seems even more starkly mercenary.
There are a few clues we can tease out. First of all, despite the fact that the story is written in the epistolary form, the majority of it is direct dialogue. My guess is that it was heavily influenced by the sort of comic plays that were popular in the late eighteenth century such as Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, many of which had plots focused on romantic scheming and arranged marriages. And we should note that the story was dedicated to her brother Edward, who was adopted out of the family by wealthy, childless relatives, the Knights. Could there have been a corner of the young Jane Austen who was a bit shocked by this transaction—little more than the selling of a child—and transmuted her emotions into this fiction?
We’ll never know what motivated Jane Austen to write “The Three Sisters,” though I tend to believe that in general, her engagement with stories so alien to her personal experience was more a matter of challenging the norms of literary genres than a form of personal therapy. Many of the lines of this brief tale are laugh-out-loud funny, but the unrelieved cynicism leaves a sour taste in any romance-lover’s mouth. We can be grateful that Jane Austen mellowed as she aged—enough that, in the end, she “pierced our souls.”
• Abigail Bok is the author of the short story “A Summer in Sanditon” in Sun-Kissed: Effusions of Summer and of the novel An Obstinate, Headstrong Girl.