July 2011 meeting: The Watsons

Bookcovers for Jane Austen's The Watsons

Bookcovers for Jane Austen's The Watsons

Thanks to member Cheng for preparing this report.

Our Saturday 16th July meeting was held in the Friends Lounge of the National Library of Australia with eight members present and two apologies.


We discussed a generous offer from JASA to support the provision of a speaker, once a year, at branch meetings. JASA will cover transport costs if the branch will organise accommodation (where accommodation is needed). It was agreed that we would discuss the list of available speakers at a future meeting with a view to organising a speaker for 2012.

The planning of forthcoming meetings/events was discussed:

  • Saturday 20th August: outing to the cinema to see the latest production of Jane Eyre. Booking details will be emailed to all members.
  • Sunday 28th August: two members generously offered to host a progressive dinner in their homes to celebrate JASACT’s 10th birthday. Partners are invited. Details regarding food contributions will be arranged at the 20th August meeting and/or via email.
  • Saturday 17th September: discussion of Gothic novels, with each member to read a Gothic novel of his/her choice.
  • Saturday 15th October: discussion of Northanger Abbey.

The recent Sotheby’s London sale on 14th July that produced a heart-stopping hammer price of ₤ 993,250 (or $1,495,178.24 AUD) on a portion of Jane Austen’s draft manuscript of The Watsons was exclaimed upon and relief expressed that the precious manuscript now belongs to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where it will be safely preserved and available for viewing.


The meeting then moved on to a vigorous discussion of The Watsons:

  • The discussion opened with a member quoting a critic who described The Watsons as the most ‘joyless’ of Jane Austen’s novels, but another member countered this with Margaret Drabble’s description of it as a ‘tantalizing, delightful & highly accomplished fragment’.
  • While agreeing generally with Drabble, another member suggested that in its present state there are ‘clunky bits’ of heavy dialogue with too much information given via dialogue rather than authorial comment.
  • Brian Southam, in Jane Austen: a student’s guide to the later manuscripts & works, was quoted as saying it provides fascinating glimpses of Jane Austen at work ‘polishing’, e.g., ‘he poured her wine’ is changed to ‘he helped her to wine’ which he suggested was more “refined”..
  • In fact, a member suggested that ‘refinement’ is an important theme – both exterior & inner refinement. Early in the novel Elizabeth expresses concern that Emma might be too refined for them:

I suppose my aunt brought you up to be rather refined. […] But I can see in a great many things that you are very refined.

  • In an interesting reversal of the situation in Mansfield Park, Emma Watson is the poor ‘refined’ orphan.
  • Intriguing hints at characters & names used in future novels can be found, such as the sisters in Pride & Prejudice and in Persuasion; Mrs Robert Watson has similarities to Mrs Elton in Emma; and is the absent Penelope a Miss Steele, chasing her doctor, from Sense & Sensibility?
  • And what of Tom Musgrave? Is he a Rake or a Rattle? A Willoughby or a Thorpe? It was agreed that this depended on the development of the relationships between the sisters – he is certainly a manipulative game player.
  • One member wondered whether Lord Osborne is really interested in women. His behaviour is quite odd and ungentlemanly – using Musgrave to snoop for information about Emma and accompany him on a social call to the rectory – even ‘perving’ on Emma as she danced with Mr. Howard. Apparently he is the only lord in Jane Austen’s novels.
  • Will Lady Osborne really become an older woman preying on a younger man? An early ‘cougar’? Or was Cassandra Austen misquoted: did she mean Miss Osborne?
  • Emma’s three sisters have such potential for future development: the gentle kind Elizabeth, gossipy as well and a little bitter; the superficial Margaret with the slow articulation; and Penelope, whom everyone regretted not having returned from Chichester.
  • Why did Jane Austen not go back to finish The Watsons? The opinions were varied: The lack of her father’s support and her mother’s possibly unsympathetic temper; Emma was poorer than any other heroine – Jane Austen was being very much a serious social realist and it was a story perhaps too close to her own life. Though later she did glance at the situation in the story of Jane Fairfax when her ‘foster’ family goes to Ireland; Writing the scene of the father’s death would have been too painful and morbid.
  • Jane Austen’s evidently strong preferences on what constituted a good preaching manner as expressed by Mr. Watson in his description of Mr. Howard’s excellent delivery; pronouncing him ‘a scholar and a gentleman’. Was she the first to use the cliché? Aphra Benn used the phrase: “too much a gentleman to be a scholar”. It was also used by Burns and Wordsworth.
  • The subtle distinctions of class: fashions, such as half boots, powdered hair, etc., used to signify naiveté, ignorance or vulgarity, and define the class of either the observer or the wearer, and is closely linked to the theme of refinement; the hours when meals were taken and how they are named varies in every household, and is used amusingly in the instance of Tom Musgrave’s thwarted attempts to escape to his dinner.
  • There was appreciation for the sensitively written episode of Emma’s dancing with young Charles Blake – one of the rare examples in Jane Austen’s works of a child given credibility on a social occasion and she uses him as a plot device very well. Margaret Drabble was quoted as saying that this is a singular example when “children are not tiresome, wit is not malicious and ballrooms are not places of disaster”.
  • At the end Emma, naturally strong, remains ‘uninfluenced’ – hers is a character akin to those of Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price who quietly stand up for themselves against pressure to marry for money.

The meeting was rounded off happily with the reading of two poems by Jane Austen; ‘I have a pain in my head’ and ‘On a headache’, the traditional round of quotes and a tricky quiz by our Master Quizmaster.


2 Responses to July 2011 meeting: The Watsons

  1. jenny k says:

    What an excellent rendition!

  2. […] 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 […]

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