The one awful thing about being a Jane Austen fan is that she only published six novels. But don’t despair, there is more Austen to love—and not just in the stories written by others! This is the second post in a series about the less-known works of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen left behind two unfinished novels—Sanditon (discussed in my last post) and The Watsons. Sanditon had to be abandoned because of Austen’s terminal illness, but The Watsons was written much earlier in her career and poses a more tantalizing mystery: why did she give up on it after writing nearly a third of the book? Biographers and scholars think they know the answers—but are they right?
The Watsons begins with a failed adoption. Emma Watson, daughter of an impecunious clergyman, has been raised by a wealthy and elegant aunt and uncle. The uncle has died, the aunt has remarried, and her new husband has returned Emma unceremoniously to her birth family.
There the ladylike and intelligent Emma finds her biological father seriously ill and meets some of her siblings: her eldest sister, Elizabeth; another sister, Margaret (one of Jane Austen’s funniest characters ever!); and one of her brothers, Robert, along with his vulgarly pseudo-genteel wife (think Mrs. Elton). Another brother and sister are mentioned but don’t appear. We also meet some local gentry and aristocratic families, including Lord Osborne, his mother, and his sister; the scene is set and our cast of characters is largely established. There is plenty of absurdity to enjoy, and we have a probable hero, an antihero, and even a dark-horse candidate for Emma’s hand.
Jane Austen wrote The Watsons after completing early versions of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice but before Mansfield Park, Emma, or Persuasion, during a period when her own life was seriously disrupted. The Austen family had been uprooted from her childhood home when her clergyman father retired. With him unable to work, the family’s future was uncertain. It is generally assumed that Emma Watson’s situation in life was too painfully close to Austen’s own, so she abandoned The Watsons after her father died rather than have to write about similar events.
Indeed, Austen writes graphically about Emma’s unhappy situation: “she was become of importance to no one, a burden on those whose affection she could not expect . . . surrounded by inferior minds with little chance of domestic comfort, & as little hope of future support.” In this novel, Emma is shaping up to be the most Cinderella-like of all Austen’s heroines, in the vein of Fanny Price and Anne Elliot but even worse off. Austen’s recurrent theme of young women’s struggle to find a place where they belong in the world is most starkly explicit here.
A few years later, when Austen’s life had stabilized, she returned to other works she’d written earlier, but never took up The Watsons again. She finished Lady Susan (more about that novella in my next post) and rewrote her early novels, while starting work on Mansfield Park. More significantly for the fate of The Watsons, she began to reuse some of its character names and plot elements in her new work.
So she did not shy away from the material of The Watsons—she simply decided to use it in different ways. Tom Musgrave from The Watsons becomes Charles Musgrove in Persuasion, and his wife (Anne Elliot’s sister Mary) is traceable to Emma Watson’s whiny sister Margaret. Emma’s own storyline becomes that of Jane Fairfax in Emma, though her given name has been transferred to a heroine more fortunately circumstanced. In these and other parallels, we can see Austen working the people and themes of The Watsons into new patterns.
It seems Jane Austen decided that the plot of The Watsons was flawed, but she liked many of the characters and situations too much to abandon them altogether. And there is a lot to love in The Watsons, one of Austen’s most emotional works. Fans of Persuasion will adore this story, and enjoy weaving their own ideas for its completion. How would you give Emma Watson her happy ending?