Review: The Watsons by Jane Austen (#AustenInAugustRBR)

The Watsons by Jane Austen
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 30

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.

Watercolour of Jane Austen by her niece Cassandra

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.

Jane Austen – Original Portrait

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

11 Comments on “Review: The Watsons by Jane Austen (#AustenInAugustRBR)

  1. There’s nothing wrong with loving this one! This book by far I think has the most potential. If she finished it it could have eclipsed P&P as the most well known (I think) because of the sass (and even more sardonic observations) she included in it.


  2. I never knew what this one was about!! Another somewhat-Pride & Prejudice? I’m excited to read it now! 😀


    • There wasn’t a whole lot of it (50-60 pages?) but, for the little that was there, I really enjoyed it! It had such great potential… I wish Austen would have finished it, because it could have easily been her best. It was just different enough from her other works to be a real stand-out, though the general themes were the same.


  3. Not only do I have a hard time keeping track of how everyone is related to each other, but I forget which of the many people with the same last name is which. This is another reason why it’s a bad idea to date and/or marry your cousin. Let’s branch it out, people.


    • Austen was notorious for using the same names over and over in her works, too (the names of people she knew). There were, apparently, a limited number of first names and surnames in her familial/social circle. lol


  4. Your comment about Austen leaving The Watsons aside in order to work on Pride and Prejudice made me think of the former as a first draft. Maybe Pride and Prejudice had to come out but had to emerge from another idea that was in the way. I haven’t read either but it’s just an idea that crossed my mind. I understand your frustration though, to read something you like so much only to have it stop unexpectedly can be disappointing.
    By the way, I’ve tagged your for the “Lucky Seven Challenge”, a meme I hope you will take part in.


  5. totally unexpected extra addition to my JA reading options!
    thanks for your intro, Adam, and will look fwd to a brief opening in my schedule where this one will fit perfectly ! always fascinating to discover more JA excellence …


  6. Pingback: Introducing Lady Susan Vernon « Maria Grace

  7. I totally agree, unfinished works seem so personal sometimes, as if the author didn’t want to part with them perhaps. I also really enjoyed Sanditon, another one of Austen’s unfinished works. Thanks for the review, your writing style is incredible!


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