There is something bizarre about my relationship with unfinished works by brilliant writers; for some reason, these works end up being my favorites. My favorite Hemingway novel, for instance, is The Garden of Eden. Hemingway worked on the novel for decades, but never finished it, and it was published posthumously. Similarly, The Mysterious Stranger is my favorite work by Mark Twain – it is also incomplete and was also published posthumously! Now, with Austen’s The Watsons, I find myself for the third time in the same situation. What, I think, connects these texts, other than the fact that they were never finished, is that they were started by the author and revisited multiple times, and other works (now famous) were published by these authors in their lifetimes, while the unfinished texts remained sedentary. These three texts are more brazen, personal, and somewhat opposite to any of the authors’ other works and it is because of this, perhaps, that the authors never seemed quite able to “complete” them, nor were they desirous of seeing the works published. I think the three expose something of the authors’ souls – they strike a sensitive nerve, which resonates with me. So, I understand why they were not completed and I doubt that, had they been finished, they would be as raw and wonderful as they are, incomplete.
This is the only novel that Austen attempted to write while living at Bath, a place she came to hate. Her previous works were written at Steventon and her later works at Chawton. The theme of the novel and its heroine, then, are suitably different from her completed novels. In this highly accomplished but incomplete fragment of a novel, we find young Emma Watson, a would-be heiress, disappointed from her inheritance and about to be orphaned by the (anticipated) death of her ailing father. At one point, her cousin Robert says to her, of her situation: “After keeping you at a distance from your family for such a length of time as must do away all natural affection among us and breeding you up (I suppose) in a superior style, you are returned upon their hands without a sixpence.” This would seem to sum up what would be the major conflict of the story – a young woman, more refined than her situation in life would want her to be, returns to a world in which she is now out-of-place, in hopes of finding a husband. It is similar to other Austen tales in that it finds a young woman seeking (or being sought for) marriage and a heroine who is determined not to marry for money.
Many believe The Watsons to have been an early draft of Emma, but it is perhaps even more similar to Pride & Prejudice, both in theme and in presentation (particularly the rapid introduction of family members and other characters at the start, and the narrative opening with a ball wherein all the major players are to be introduced, etc.).
One thing that does consistently irk me about Austen is her tendency to throw-out a lot of characters all at once, at the start of her stories. The Watsons is no exception in this regard – though it is just 5 chapters long, we seem to meet a whole host of people. This has its positives and negatives, of course; on the positive side, Austen is a master of characterization and a lot of what holds her stories together (and enhances them) is her deep understanding of people and of human nature; the negative, though, is trying to keep up with all the people, their relationships (who is related to whom?), etc. Usually, the same characters which are presented at the beginning of her novels are present throughout and right up to the end, so the reader has plenty of time to get to know them and really figure out who means what to whom, to the story, and to the narrative, but because The Watsons is so short, we do not get that particular satisfaction. It is not fault of the story itself, just the result of its having not been finished. That being said, Emma Watson is a wonderful character, one who was bound to become a classically brilliant Austen heroine (I could see her being one of my favorites, in fact, as she is somewhat of a mixture of Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse). Her sister, too, so obsessed with marriage and other peoples’ business is fun to watch, and one can assume that the Osbornes would have been an interesting family to get involved with, particularly as they live on such a grander scale than the Watsons. Then, there is Tom Musgrave – the lady’s man. His attempts at “making love” to Emma were hilarious, in the short amount of time we were able to see it – so that, too, could have been great fun.
After “suffering” through the epistolary style of Lady Susan, it is refreshing to see Austen back in her true form, third-person narrative. Aside from the difficulty which arises from the manuscript having not been segmented in any way (a similar problem was also found in Lady Susan where, though the letters were separated, they were not dated – so one lost all sense of time), the prose is noticeably improved from her earlier works and is a clear indicator of what will become the masterful style found in Pride and Prejudice and other future novels.
With five chapters and just under 18,000 words, The Watsons providers readers with just enough content to be furious with Jane Austen for not giving us more and, especially, for not finishing it. Jane began writing the story in 1803 and though there were some revisions (the editor to the Penguin edition, which I read, points them out), Austen likely gave up on the story after her father fell ill and, in 1805, passed away. It is also possible that Austen never returned to The Watsons because she, instead, began working on Pride and Prejudice, which is very similar. At one point in the novel, Emma says to her sister: “To be so bent on marriage – to pursue a man merely for the sake of situation – is a sort of thing that shocks me.” This particular line reminds me a great deal of Elizabeth Bennet’s conversations with Mrs. Bennet (Mrs. Bennet having the same opinion of marriage as Emma’s sister in The Watsons – that it is, primarily, a financial arrangement). Ultimately, reading The Watsons results in great joy and in some melancholy. What little of the text we have is a delight to read, but the experience comes with the disappointment of knowing that this could have been a seventh novel that would have been just as strong as the completed six. What a bummer!
The Watsons is Book #3 Completed for Austen in August