Unfinished Austen: The Watsons

Unlike Austen’s other incomplete novel Sanditon, there are hints as to how The Watsons was meant to end. But does knowing the ending mean that the reader will be more satisfied with what we have of Austen’s work?

By Sadie MacDonald

Time for another Unfinished Austen discussion! I wrote about Sanditon, Austen’s last (incomplete) novel, in March. Let’s backtrack to an unfinished novel from the middle of Austen’s career: The Watsons. Images of the manuscript are available online (as well as edited full text). The Watsons is shorter than Sanditon, though we know more about its unwritten plot. Even so, after reading it, I feel wistful for what could’ve been.

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Jane Austen made rewrites to the draft of The Watsons by affixing additional scraps of paper to the manuscript with pins, as shown here. When Microsoft Word isn’t an option, you make do. Photo: Open Culture

Austen’s reasons for abandoning The Watsons aren’t fully known. According to Austen’s great-niece Fanny Lefroy, Austen began the novel “somewhere in 1804… but her father died early in 1805 and it was never finished.” The death of Austen’s father George, who had encouraged his daughter to write, was a serious emotional blow, especially considering that Austen’s close friend Anne Lefroy had died suddenly the month before. Furthermore, George Austen’s death forced Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother to depend on relatives for their livelihood. Understandably, Austen was not a prolific writer during those years.

While Austen eventually wrote other novels, she never completed The Watsons, though the manuscript features extensive revisions. The subject matter likely became too personal for her, as the Watson patriarch was supposed to die, casting his daughters in an uncertain position (more on that later). Whatever the case, the fragment remained unpublished until James Edward Austen-Leigh released it in A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1871.

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A plaque designating the house in Bath where Jane Austen and her family lived from 1801 to 1805. Austen wrote The Watsons during this period. Apparently Austen was not a fan of Bath – maybe her dislike of the place had something to do with her losing her desire to finish the novel she had started there. Photo: sleepymyf

The story of The Watsons is familiar for Austen readers. The Watsons are poor and numerous, like the Morland and Price families. Heroine Emma Watson was raised by affluent relatives with the expectation she would be made their heir, much like Frank Churchill in Emma. As with the Bennets and the Dashwoods, the family’s sisters must marry and secure a stable future.

We don’t get much of the story, but we have an idea of how The Watsons was meant to end, if Austen-Leigh’s note accompanying the published fragment is anything to go by:

“When the author’s sister, Cassandra, showed the manuscript of this work to some of her nieces, she also told them something of the intended story… Mr. Watson was soon to die; and Emma to become dependent for a home on her narrow-minded sister-in-law and brother. She was to decline an offer of marriage from Lord Osborne, and much of the interest of the tale was to arise from Lady Osborne’s love for Mr. Howard, and his counter affection for Emma, whom he was finally to marry.”

So, The Watsons treads familiar ground, but it also offers intriguing possibilities. Other Austen novels feature death as backstory, but here a father dies in the midst of the story itself. Emma’s relative poverty and distaste for rich suitor Lord Osborne are also interesting. Though her stories focus on affluent circles, Austen was from a family of modest income – closer to the Watsons than the Woodhouses – so this plot could have been personally meaningful for her. As Margaret Drabble writes, “one feels that through [Emma] Jane Austen was expressing the indignation of a whole class of women, to which she herself belonged.” I’m also curious about Emma’s competition against Lady Osborne, Lord Osborne’s mother – I would’ve liked to see a wealthy older woman pursuing a younger man!

As with Sanditon, other creators have finished The Watsons, including Austen’s niece Catherine Hubback, her great-great-niece Edith Brown, and playwright Laura Wade in 2018.

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A scene from Laura Wade’s stage rendition of The Watsons at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

With the available story notes, taking over The Watsons is an easier task than it is for Sanditon, which contains multitudes of unknowns. As an Austen fan, is it more satisfying knowing the ending to The Watsons? Not really.

Generally, we know what ending to expect when we read Austen novels. We read because we’re intrigued by the steps it takes to get to that ending, and the winding social interactions that make up the plot. I still get anxious when I read about Lydia Bennet’s elopement or Edward Ferrars’ apparent marriage to Lucy Steele. I would’ve liked to see the story build in The Watsons. Margaret Drabble concurs: “although it was written in a period of some sadness, The Watsons has a vitality and optimism that one would have liked to follow to the end.”

We have a roadmap to finish it ourselves, but we’ll always ache for Austen’s touch.

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