Having 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.
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!
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!