The May Meeting

May 14, 2018

The May meeting is this Saturday, May 19th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be sharing secondary sources on Sanditon.


April 2018: Considering the unfinished Sanditon

April 22, 2018

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonSanditon, sadly, was Austen’s last novel. She left it unfinished at 12 chapters, dying before she could complete it. Like The Watsons, it tantalises Austen fans – even more so in a way because we have no information about how she planned to finish it. Consequently, our discussion had to start at first principles and just look at what we had in front of us.

What sort of work is Sanditon?

Our discussion started with two quite different opinions. One member said the novel felt less economical than Austen’s other works, more like her Juvenilia. Charlotte, she said, seems the only sane person, with the rest feeling rather like caricatures than the more “realistic” people we see in her other novels.

At the other end of the spectrum, another member proposed that the novel represents the beginning of something new, and that this was tackling societal issues – a precursor to Dickens – rather than just writing a marriage story.

We spent some time discussing these societal issues, one being the development of seaside resorts, of the “health resort industry”. We noted that the discussion about whether doctors are useful, indicated the more precarious reputation of doctors in Austen’s times.

We were intrigued by the references to West Indians, and also the rather casual introduction, at the end of the fragment, of Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender”. What does this mean, and where was Austen going to take Miss Lambe? Was she inspired by Dido, who was raised by Lord Mansfield.

The book also seems to explore money and consumerism, the idea that everything can be bought. Mr Parker is delighted to see some of the local cottages “smartened up with a white curtain and ‘Lodgings to let’” signs. The West Indians are also mentioned in the context of money:

But then, they who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief of raising the price of things – and I have heard that’s very much the case with your West-injines – and if they come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of life, we shall not much thank them Mr Parker.’

Does all this reflect the financial uncertainties being felt both in Austen’s own family (with, for example, the failure of Henry Austen’s bank) and in the wider post-war English society? We noted an early reference to money when Charlotte visits the circulating library and comments on managing her money.

We also wondered whether the book would present an anti-aristocracy agenda, through Lady Denman, whom Charlotte calls “mean”:

And she makes everybody mean about her. – This poor Sir Edward and his sister, – how far nature meant them to be respectable I cannot tell, – but they are obliged to be mean in their servility to her. – And I am mean too, in giving her my attention, with the appearance of co-inciding with her. – Thus it is, when rich people are sordid.’

That’s a pretty strong statement about aristocracy.

We considered the section in which the Parkers, including Mr Parker’s sister, Diana, discuss asking Lady Denman to help poorer people through a “charitable subscription”. In other books, such as Emma, wealthier characters do good works, but this seems to be a new – and money-based – direction for helping others.

One member wondered whether Austen was setting country life (via the Heywoods and also perhaps Mrs Parker’s preference for her Old Sanditon house in the “little contracted nook”) against coastal life. She felt that Austen doesn’t praise one over the other.

We also noted that, through Sir Edward, Sanditon ridicules readers who write them themselves into novels (as she does in Northanger Abbey).

New style?

We talked about changes in her style, and felt that both style and content mark Sanditon as a transition novel. For example, the novel opens rather startlingly with a dramatic event, the overturning of a carriage (though fortunately no-one is seriously injured.)

There is also a lot more description, both of people and place. In our discussion of The Watsons, we discussed her heavy use of dialogue to move the story along, but this is not so in Sanditon where there’s significant description of the characters, and where much of the narrative is carried through Charlotte, who functions, in these opening chapters anyhow, as an observer.

What hasn’t changed, however, is Austen’s incisiveness, such as her description of Mr Parker as “more imagination than judgement” and Mrs Parker as “equally useless”!

We also discussed some words/phrases, and whether Austen had coined them. Does the phrase Nosey Parker come from the Parkers? There are various ideas about its origins, but our member felt Austen could be credited with the idea. However, she said, it is accepted that Austen coined the term “pseudo-philosophy“. Finally, we all had to look up a word none of us knew – eleemosynary.

We commented briefly on Austen’s use of irony and satire in the novel – and the ironic fact that she was writing this book about hypochondria when her own health was really failing.

One member noted the use of a letter to introduce the Parker siblings. We agreed that letters aren’t uncommon in Austen, but that the use could be different here.

How would the book play out?

Of course we talked about where the plot might go, particularly in terms of pairings, though one member suggested that maybe the heroine, Charlotte, would not marry. Now, that would be a radical departure for Austen! However, if she did, some of the ideas presented were that Charlotte would:

  • reform the indolent, hypochondriac, Arthur Parker
  • marry Sidney Parker
  • marry one of the friends who’ve come to town with Sidney

Other ideas were that Sidney would save Clara Brereton from the lecherous Sir Edward.

One member, though, questioned whether Sidney could be the hero, given he arrives in a carriage!

Bits and pieces

Other points of discussion included:

  • the various continuations, including Reginald Hill’s A cure for all diseases.
  • Sir Edward as a precursor to Harvey Weinstein!
  • the Parker siblings – and that Susan probably has Munchausen syndrome, while Arthur is just plain lazy. One member commented that the Parkers were “goers”, who actively helped each other. But we also noted Charlotte’s comment about them: “vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.”

Next month, we will test some of these ideas against those of critics and commentators!

The April Meeting

April 17, 2018

The April Meeting is this Saturday, April 21, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing Sanditon.

March 2018 meeting: The mysterious Watsons

March 21, 2018
Book covers for Jane Austen's The Watsons

Book covers for Jane Austen’s The Watsons

Prepared by member Jenny

Incomplete though it is, The Watsons has yielded us the only complete original manuscript of Jane Austen’s work.

It fascinates stylistically and has been the source of endless theories as to the reasons why it was never finished. Fortunately, Austen did leave clues with Cassandra as to the rest of the story. This, in turn, has engendered many versions of the completed novel by others.

The manuscript, worth £1,000,000, is in the form of 11 tiny homemade booklets, measuring 19×12 cms. They include one later patched in page complete with sewing pins. These booklets suggest that not only was Jane very economical with her 1804 watermarked paper and controlled with her penmanship, she was competent in her intentions and purpose. She was making her novel according to the essay “Making Books: How Jane Austen Wrote in Jane Austen Writer in the World edited by Kathryn Sutherland.

The booklets reveal evidence of the writing challenge Austen set herself. They represent a near tyrannical structure, one that closes off options and leaves the writer dangerously exposed – get it right the first time, for there are few opportunities for extensive reworking, rather the booklet challenges the writer to keep moving forward.

Wiesenfarth has noted the dialogic form, the gradual unfolding of character and the use of dance in the fragment. During the three-mile carriage drive we learn much about the world of the Watsons. It is a world of dialogue. Furthermore we learn the whole situation only over a series of conversations. This thoroughly modern way of telling a story is a mode of characterisation. He says of the use of dance as a central event, “The Watsons provides another instance of a pattern in which a ball is anticipated, takes place, and then becomes a topic of conversation for a long time afterwards.”

Heldman believes Austen was unable to establish her usual narrative voice distancing her from her characters. “The narrative voice of Jane Austen telling us the story, informing us, guiding us, shaping our responses, standing between us and her characters as we together watch them live their lives.” She was too closely identifying herself in the character of Emma Watson rather than clarifying. Professor Litz apparently thought Austen was attempting to cast the novel in dramatic form and “fails to give us a double vision of her heroine.” The questions and confusions we experience are not at all what we experience in her other works. “The informing narrator has stepped aside.” This may have been a reason why she did not complete the novel.

Pool sees Jane as revealing character through their subtler actions – the significance of Mr Howard preaching at the visitation as an assistant to the archdeacon indicates that he was well-regarded by the church hierarchy. Similarly, personality traits of other characters are revealed through their style of card playing and choice of games.

The autobiographical elements were also noted in relation to poverty for women of education and the struggle between women for men, space, peace and comfort. These elements were very realistically depicted.

This in turn led back to the Austen family’s reactions to the first completed version of the story, titled The Younger Sister, written by Jane’s niece, Catherine Anna Austen Hubback in 1850. They shunned it because they were afraid that the public would see the resemblance between Jane and Emma, Mary Lloyd Austen and Mrs Robert Watson and even between Catherine’s father, Francis and Sam, rather than their carefully sanitised version of her and their family.

Catherine, the youngest of Frank’s children spent much of her childhood with Cassandra Austen and Martha Lloyd, her stepmother. It was surmised that they told her endlessly about The Watsons and what Jane had intended in her story.

While many versions of the completed story have appeared, the one by Jane Austen and “Another” (1977), appears to have been very closely based on Hubback’s version with only the inclusion of one new character and possibly the watering down of some of the drama.

As to the reasons why Austen never returned to her manuscript, Cecil believed that she was simply too busy. Her mother became very ill, Mrs Lefroy was killed in a riding accident, her father died and they had to move house several times, quite apart from worries about how the family was going to live. “Worry and anxiety about the future…disturbed the tranquillity of mind she need to concentrate on composition.” Weisenfarth, on the other hand, argued that Jane felt she would be repeating herself by completing the novel so instead chose to transform the elements into other novels.

We will never know for sure what happened.

Source material:

Cecil, David: A Portrait of Jane Austen.
Ellenandjim. Catherine Anne Austen Hubback’s The Younger Sister: a fine and telling sequel to Jane Austen’s The Watsons. in Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two, (May 28, 2012)
Heldman, James: Where is Jane Austen in The Watsons?
Pool, Daniel: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.
Sutherland, Katherine, ed: Jane Austen: A Writer in the World.
Wiesenfarth, Joseph: The Watsons as Pretext, in Persuasions (8), 1986.

March Meeting

March 11, 2018

The March Meeting is next Saturday, March 17th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be sharing secondary sources on The Watsons.

February 2018 meeting: The Watsons, again

February 18, 2018

Veuve CliquotHaving completed rereading all of Jane Austen’s novels over the last few years to commemorate their respective 200th anniversaries, we decided to return this year to her two unfinished novels, starting in February with The Watsons. This makes the third time we’ve discussed this book, the previous times being in 2008 and 2011 (which was written up on our blog). However, as all Austen fans know, there’s always something new to be gleaned from re-reading her works – even unfinished ones of less than 18,000 words!

Before we started our discussion though, we celebrated the start of our year with a special bottle of champers – Veuve Cliquot Vintage 2008 – provided once again by our lovely generous Cheng. As we imbibed this special drink, we ooh-ed and aah-ed over Cheng and Anna’s treasured writing slopes/lap desks. It was some time before we started discussing The Watsons!

However, we eventually got started – and we started by a member saying that as she read the novel she couldn’t get the Irving Berlin song, “Sisters Sisters”, out of her head. Its lines include:

Those who’ve seen us know that not a thing can come between us
Many men have tried to split us up but no one can
Lord help the mister that come between me and my sister
And Lord help the sister that come between me and my man

Overall, we were all sorry that The Watsons ended so soon. We talked briefly about its dating and why she stopped it, the most likely reason relating to sadness over the death of her father and her resultant uncertain living conditions.

The characters

We all noted similarities between characters in The Watsons and in other Austen novels. One member itemised her ideas:

  • Emma Watson is similar to Elizabeth Bennet (P&P), but can also be compared to Jane Fairfax (Emma)
  • Elizabeth Watson could be a prototype for Jane Bennet (P&P) and perhaps also Elinor Dashwood (S&S)
  • Mrs Robert Watson clearly relates to Fanny Dashwood (S&S)
  • Robert Watson predates John Dashwood and Robert Ferrars (S&S)
  • Penelope Watson is similar to Anne Steele, the older sister of Lucy, in her desperation to find a husband and both imagining older men at attracted to them (S&S)
  • Margaret Watson has the bitchiness of the Bingley sisters (P&P) and Fanny’s girl cousins (MP) Maria and Julia, perhaps also has a dash of Mrs Elton (Emma).
  • Mr Watson, the invalid father, could be an antecedent of Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse (Emma)
  • Tom Musgrave could be a Willoughby perhaps (S&S), and Lord Osborne has a bit of Mr Darcy (P&P) in his lack of social manners.
  • Mr Howard compares slightly to Henry Tilney (NA)
  • Miss Osborne is like Miss Bingley (P&P)
  • Mary Edwards very much under her parents’ thumbs, like Fanny (MP) and Emma’s protégé, Harriet (Emma)
  • Mrs Edwards has some similarities with Mrs Ferrars (S&S)

Although we all saw similarities, we did differ at times. For example, some of us felt Mrs Edwards was kinder than Mrs Ferrars, and remind us more of Mrs Jennings (S&S). And, while we saw similarities between Mr Watson and Mr Woodhouse, we also saw Mr Watson as being a bit like Mr Bennet (P&P) in not taking much responsibility for his daughters. Some of us saw many parallels with Emma, in particular.

We then talked about how the plot would play out beyond what Cassandra reported regarding Emma’s future. What would happen to Tom Musgrave? Would he marry Elizabeth Watson? Could he be saved by the right woman? Will he be the rake, the ruin, for example, of Margaret Watson (like Lydia and Wickham.) It was suggested that Lady Osborne is Lady Susan incarnate. Also, we were sorry that we didn’t get to meet Penelope.

Why didn’t Austen return to this book later?

While we generally accepted the reasons suggested for why Austen stopped writing the novel, the question of why she didn’t pick it up again when the family finally settled in Chawton is more mysterious. One member suggested that there are many similarities in the basic set up – a group of sisters and their marriage prospects – to her first two published novels (S&S and P&P), and so she may have decided to try something different. That something different was Mansfield Park.

Another member shared memoirist James Austen-Leigh’s idea that she realised “the evil of having placed her heroine too low, in such a position of poverty and obscurity”, while another referred to biographer Elizabeth Jenkins’ suggestion that it was too morbid.

We talked a bit about this “morbid” idea, with some members finding it a very sad book while others feeling that the fragment we have doesn’t seem sadder than the beginning of some other books, such as S&S.

On member suggested, practically, that maybe Austen just felt it wasn’t going to work – and that she’s not the first author to drop a book for this reason!

Other comments

While the above issues occupied most of our time, we also roamed over other issues, such as:

  • that this is the only time we really see a child – the young Charles Blake – in a strong position, and we wondered what further role he would play.
  • the separation of children from their families in their youth (as we see in Emma, and as happened in Austen’s own family)
  • the meaning of “poverty” given the Watsons have maids. We discussed that poverty is relative to one’s environment and also that the girls were in an invidious position in terms of their future financial support if they didn’t marry. We noted that Emma Watson isn’t Austen’s only poor heroine. Look at Fanny Price!
  • that Lord Osborne came across as possibly “gay” to some members, while other vehemently disagreed.

We discussed the issue of the “brown” complexion, Emma being described as brown. The fair-complexioned Margaret, who fancies herself a favourite of Tom Musgrave, discusses Emma with him:

“Emma is delightful, is not she?” whispered Margaret; “I have found her more than answer my warmest hopes. Did you ever see anything more perfectly beautiful? I think even you must be a convert to a brown complexion.”

He hesitated. Margaret was fair herself, and he did not particularly want to compliment her; but Miss Osborne and Miss Carr were likewise fair, and his devotion to them carried the day.

“Your sister’s complexion,” said he, at last, “is as fine as a dark complexion can be; but I still profess my preference of a white skin. You have seen Miss Osborne? She is my model for a truly feminine complexion, and she is very fair.”

“Is she fairer than me?”

This is classic Austen, with layers of meaning underpinning the dialogue.

And finally, member Mary said she was pleased to finally see a nice Mary (Edwards) in an Austen novel! We all laughed at that!


We ended our meeting by sharing our “secret”quotes, and confirming that our next meeting would be a discussion of secondary sources on this tantalising fragment.

NOTE: Our next meeting will occur on the afternoon of Skyfire, so parking, as last year, may be tricky. We will need to allow more time, perhaps, to get to the meeting!

February Meeting

February 12, 2018

The February meeting is this Saturday, February 17th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing The Watsons.