Continuing my review of Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon with the middle portion of the collection…
Of the three unpublished works, The Watsons seems the most difficult for the uninitiated to enjoy. Written square in the middle of her career, with its heroine Emma Watson soon to be replaced by Emma Woodhouse, its style, themes and overall layout fall more in line with the typically Austenish compared to the divergent career bookends of Lady Susan‘s 18th Century worldliness and Sanditon’s impressionistic town sketch. To go by most reviews of The Watsons, drawing parallels and hunting for recycled elements from and in other Austen works is the root of this potential novel’s charm, one which I am obviously barred from getting. To me, The Watsons is the weak link in this chain, a promising but unsatisfactory draft that demands a serious intent for study from the reader.
The premise has much potential: Emma Watson comes from a poor family (with three older sisters, all ominously unmarried) but was raised by a wealthy aunt and stands apart in manners and outlook from her more rustic kin. Having suffered the loss of her inheritance before she could ever receive it, Emma has returned to her dying father as one more burden upon him, only to attract the attention of Lord Osborne – the richest man in the province. However, Osborne lacks social grace and Emma does not encourage him: ‘Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.’ From what Jane Austen told her sister, the greater plot of The Watsons (hopefully to have been given a less quotidian name somewhere down the line) would have involved the family’s increasing financial woes and Emma’s pursuit of a more satisfying match with the pleasant Mr. Howard.
What we have here is the beginning of a very dark storyline, with a family on the verge of losing its patriarch and all of its prospects. The ailing father figure gives clear reason for why Austen would have laid the manuscript aside upon her own father’s demise and this casts a shadow over the book as the Watson girls have nothing to fall back on. The middle sisters Penelope and Margaret have devolved into thoughtless backbiting as they jockey for a man’s eye while eldest Elizabeth has resigned herself to the hope of a practical match. The most effective moment of the piece comes as Elizabeth quietly relates the story of her lost love, heartbreaking both as a ruined romance and as one person’s selfishness ruins the best hopes of the entire family:
…’I was very much attached to a young man of the name of Purvis, a particular friend of Robert’s, who used to be with us a great deal. Everybody thought it would have been a match.’
A sigh accompanied these words, which Emma respected in silence – but her sister after a short pause went on – ‘You will naturally ask why it did not take place, and why he is married to another woman, while I am still single. – But you must ask him – not me – you must ask Penelope. – Yes Emma, Penelope was at the bottom of it all. – She thinks everything fair for a husband; I trusted her, she set him against me, with a view of gaining him herself, and it ended in his discontinuing his visits and soon after marrying somebody else. – Penelope makes light of her conduct, but I think such treachery very bad. It has been the ruin of my happiness.’
Over and over, The Watsons makes it very clear just how dire the life of a poor spinster would be. When Emma rather piously proclaims “We must not all expect to be individually lucky… The luck of one member of a family is luck to all-” she is simply pointing out how tightly networked family life was in that era. One sibling’s good marriage offered a measure of support to everyone connected. In Lady Susan, when the lady in question is out of friends she sails straight for the home of the in-laws and settles in for a long visit. The more marriages, the more siblings, the bigger and more comfortable the net would be for any spinsters, widows, orphans or invalids caught in it. According to Austen’s outline, Emma would have to depend on her brother Robert (an attorney) for a home after her father’s death and judging by his and his wife’s behaviour this would not be a pleasant fate.
This makes me curious about the trajectory of the novel, as it was planned that Lord Osborne would be rejected in his proposal, Emma preferring the pleasant Mr. Howard, an upstanding clergyman whose personality is barely sketched. This is an unfortunate choice for the reader, as Osborne gets some dialogue and development allowing us to feel some interest in his fate but Austen did not get far enough in to leave us a single paragraph focused on Howard. Then there’s the slight moral uneasiness at the thought of Emma turning down the richest man in the province, who we are told wanted neither sense nor a good disposition, when her father is dying, her sisters are unprovided for and although Robert’s making good as an attorney, her other brother is a surgeon (Margaret Drabble says in a footnote: “The social status of the surgeon was then considerably lower than it became in the nineteenth century. It was hardly a profession for a gentleman.”). Emma’s family is at great financial risk and she is gambling with more than just her individual happiness in holding out for a better match. I don’t know to what extent Austen would have made this conflict the crux of the tale, but as she intended for Emma to marry Mr. Howard in the end I assume it would have all worked out for the best.
The working title does imply a strong focus within the family, which could have led to a complicated scenario with the conflict between Emma and the interests of her sisters being mined for some great drama. There are certainly hints of early tension between sheltered, high-minded Emma and the more pragmatic Elizabeth as they discuss prospects, with neither of them being shown entirely in the right:
‘- To be so bent on marriage – to pursue a man merely for the sake of situation – is a sort of thing that shocks me; I cannot understand it. Poverty is a great evil, but to a woman of education and feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest. – I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.’
‘I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school-‘ said her sister. ‘I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have. – I should not like marrying a disagreable man any more than yourself, – but I do not think there are very many disagreable men; – I think I could like any good humoured man with a comfortable income. – I suppose my aunt brought you up to be rather refined.’
Although speculating about the novel’s trajectory is enjoyable, and there are some good scenes throughout, The Watsons lacks style. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Emma’s meeting with the Edwards, a family whose characteristics Austen seems to have only vaguely drawn and whose conversation is therefore rather stiff, needing a burnishing it did not receive and slowing the book’s pace. The fragment ends up feeling a little lopsided, as the characters and situations start to coalesce only for the story to halt. There’s no reason to dwell on this as such imperfections are expected of a roughhewn manuscript, making it all the more miraculous how unaffected Sanditon will prove to be. This does not stop The Watsons from being thought-provoking, but the very seriousness of the issues raised actually makes it the more damaged by its underworked nature and the author’s abandonment. I still enjoyed it in abstract, but I didn’t fly through it as I did Lady Susan and her final work.