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 Whatever the case, the fragment remained unpublished until James Edward Austen-Leigh released it in A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1871.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.

Unfinished Austen: Sanditon

Sanditon is one of two novels Jane Austen never finished. Since her death, this fragment of writing has undergone a long journey of alternate interpretations. For better or for worse, everyone who interacts with Sanditon must make their own interpretive choices.

By Sadie MacDonald

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen fan in possession of six full-length novels must be in want of even more Austen stories.

Luckily for us greedy fans, more writing is available! There are several works of juvenilia as well as unfinished fragments The Watsons and Sanditon. Today I’ll focus on Sanditon, which you can read online. As an unfinished novel, it’s been subject to a lot of interpretation and conjecture over time.

First, Sanditon‘s publishing history: it wasn’t a given that it would be widely shared with readers. Jane Austen was a private person who cared deeply about her work, heavily revising manuscripts before publishing them anonymously. After Austen died, her sister Cassandra safeguarded her writing by destroying some of Jane’s letters and preserving unpublished manuscripts, which were distributed among family members after Cassandra’s death. Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included extracts of Sanditon in A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1871. Some of the Austen family had doubts about publishing Jane’s unfinished works, but Austen-Leigh felt that the public should read them. R.W. Chapman published the full text for the first time in 1925. There are pressing questions here regarding the ethics of publishing posthumously, which is beyond the scope of this post (fortunately, Serena will discuss this topic in an upcoming article!).

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A watercolour of Jane Austen painted by her sister Cassandra in 1804. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sanditon tells the story of the Parker family and their speculative attempts to make the titular seaside town a resort destination for tourists. The Parkers invite Charlotte Heywood to experience Sanditon’s charms for herself. The sensible, wry Charlotte meets many characters who vary in ridiculousness. Lady Denham, for example, is a rude, tightfisted gentlewoman who delights in having her relatives compete for her favour. There’s also Mr. Parker’s three hypochondriac siblings, who have teeth pulled on the merest suspicion of gum issues, and his charming unmarried brother, Sidney Parker. The stage is set – but the story didn’t have the chance to play out.

Austen started writing Sanditon in the last months of her life, but she was forced to abandon it when she became too ill. The fragment consists of twelve chapters, ending abruptly after Charlotte compares the portraits of Lady Denham’s deceased husbands: one has a “whole-length portrait” over the mantelpiece, while the other gets an inconspicuous miniature. It’s an innocuous moment to end on – but it’s fitting for Austen’s career to end with a witty observation. What little we have of Sanditon is tantalizing, and Austen presents it with characteristic irony and snideness. Sanditon is most intriguing, however, for what we don’t get to see, and for what we must interpret ourselves.

In her introduction to the Penguin edition of Sanditon, Margaret Drabble notes that “one cannot predict with any certainty the ways in which the plot would have developed.” The biggest questions surround the speculative venture; Mr. Parker’s naïvety left me pessimistic about its success. There’s also Sidney Parker to consider – is he another rakish red herring of a love interest like Wickham and Willoughby, a jovial beau like Mr. Tilney, or something else entirely? One interesting character, discussed but not seen, is Miss Lambe, “a young West Indian of large fortune” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto,* chilly and tender” and the “most important and precious” charge of her guardian. Austen novels can be insular, as they focus on the rural English upper-class; Mansfield Park is one exception, as it mentions that the Bertrams acquired their wealth through slave plantations. Sanditon could have been another chance to broaden horizons.

Unsurprisingly, others have tried to finish Sanditon. Some adaptations have questionable literary merits, but the blanks must be filled in. Prominent continuations include Marie Dobbs’s 1975 version and an attempted completion by Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy. There is also an upcoming television series. What choices will it make?

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The attribution of Marie Dobbs’s continuation makes reference to how Sense and Sensibility was originally promoted as “A New Novel by a Lady.” Photo: Amazon

We all must guess when it comes to Sanditon. By necessity, reading it is an exercise in making one’s own interpretations. In many respects this is nerve-wracking and unsatisfying. Can our own imaginations match up to Austen’s? Should they? Sanditon, perhaps, can be seen as a gift: a Jane Austen story we can make our own.

*The archaic term “mulatto” refers to people of mixed Black and white heritage and came into use during the period of Trans-Atlantic slavery. Considered offensive to English-speakers today, it is not a word that should be used casually in 2019!

The pen is mightier than the sword, especially when it’s Jane Austen’s

243 years after Jane Austen’s birth, her words still loom large over the literary world –  and in the dialogue about women’s rights.

By Serena Ypelaar

Today is Jane Austen’s birthday.

This time every year, I’m left reflecting on the legacy of that talented and incredibly smart woman, one whose voice speaks so loudly in both her contemporary era and our own. Despite living in a male-dominated society, Austen’s wit and wisdom has pervaded the literary world and she remains one of Britain’s most prominent authors.

Jane Austen.
Photo: Goodreads

So on her birthday, I’d like to recall the significance of her work as a canon that redefined feminism even at such an early point in time.

The author of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma, among other titles, left an indelible mark on English literature as a writer who speaks from a distinctly feminine perspective in a patriarchal society.

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

Anne Elliot discussing gender inequality in “Persuasion” (1817)

To paint a brief picture, in Austen’s society only landowning men could vote; genteel women of the middle and upper classes could only retain or augment social standing through a successful marriage. Even then, influence was confined to that of one’s husband, a notion at odds with today’s circumstances. Failure to marry well would usually result in spinsterhood, living with one’s parents for the remainder of one’s life (which was extremely embarrassing back then) and a complete lack of independence.

Despite all this, Austen rejected the marriage proposal she received from one Harris Bigg-Wither and instead committed to reconciling the two seemingly disparate lifestyles I’ve just mentioned: autonomy as a single woman.

How did she do it, you ask? She did it through her words, as a woman writer. She wrote about women’s experiences of Regency society, highlighting issues of income, class, personality, gender, and manners. She successfully sold her novels to earn money, making her quite entrepreneurial for a woman of her time. Her discerning assessments of the dynamic between men and women – despite being set 200 years before now – still resonate with us today, and her comments on the human condition have charmed readers of all genders and classes.

I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. Had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.

Marianne Dashwood describing the severe expectations of women in her society in “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Regardless of how I feel about today’s designation of “chick lit” as an excuse to dismiss female authorship, Austen owns her femininity unabashedly, delivering exacting jabs and insightful criticisms from the seat of an observer – each time a considerate and emotionally complex female character. What makes her so relevant today is that amidst the ongoing push for equal rights, people connect to her ability to find flaws in her society and propose solutions to them.

I hate to hear you talk about women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives. 

Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” (1817)

Since her books achieved mass popularity, Austen has served as an inspiration to many, though she’s not without her critics (jealous haters). Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, and other writers claimed to find no brilliance in her work, but as The Mindful Rambler is by no means a neutral publication, I feel no hesitation in discrediting their criticisms. Austen is brilliant because she represents the everyday. What might seem to some the banalities of the well-to-do in the countryside in fact set Austen apart, through the minutiae of her social criticisms and her practiced understanding of others. We’ve all met a Mrs. Bennet, whether she is our own mother, a voracious aunt, or otherwise; we all want to meet a Mr. Darcy (or Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey in my case, but I’m sure we’ll get to that in a future post).

A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Jane Austen employing her signature biting irony in “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I write this from the perspective of a woman who loves writing too, and whose work has been shaped by two prominent female writers, J.K. Rowling and Austen herself. But while the former shies away from gender politics in favour of the ideological, the latter champions her gender through representation and highlights disparities between men’s and women’s quality of life. Austen does this using a combination of cultural nuances and hyperbolic characters, stressing important themes while more subtly suggesting at other details. The result is a complex but convincing illustration of feminism in the early 19th century, one that we can use to inform our discussions of feminist literature today. And we have a well-educated, unmarried woman in Regency England who forged her own path – despite the restrictions of her society – to thank for that.

Learn more about Jane Austen and her portrayal of women here.

It’s Lit(erary)

By Serena Ypelaar

Hello again, dear readers, and thanks for visiting The Mindful Rambler! Last week, we talked about history and who writes our past. Collectively (though not without knowledge hierarchies), we shape our memory of historical events through storytelling. Now, let’s look at the second of our four themes: Literature.

When I speak broadly about literature, I mean fictional prose, poetry, literary essays, or the like. Literature may not necessarily reflect on actual events, but it does capture elements of the human experience for us to examine and reflect upon. Thus, literature is an instrument of storytelling.

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An extremely crammed bookshelf promises enough interpretation to last years. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Why is it important to look at literature in the field of interpretation? Because literature itself is an interpretation of the world around us. The creators of literature are absorbing what they see around them and reproducing (or subverting) it through the act of storytelling. Drawing upon shared experiences and portraying them, whether through realism or abstraction, allows us to understand each other, ourselves, and our environment.

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Daunt Books, Hampstead, London, UK. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Literature uses the written word to tell us the truths the world doesn’t share openly – but it’s more than just that. Books, poems, pamphlets, essays, and other literature aren’t limited to just words. They give us imagery; they provoke our senses and prompt us to think critically in response to stimuli. We aren’t force-fed these images, nor is the meaning of a literary work meant to slap us in the face. There are nuances that we ourselves have to read into, which often means that we as individuals bring different perspectives to the literature we consume.

In the act of reading, we’re interpreting. We process the messages that writers (who have interpreted before us) present to us, and our takeaway varies from one person to the next based on past experiences. Our own personalities and backstories define what stands out to us and what we think is worth considering.

So how do we find a definitive interpretation of literary texts?

We can’t.

We can choose to venerate the analyses of certain individuals – for instance, since I like Samuel Johnson, to whom this blog’s title pays homage, I’m more likely to embrace his opinions on Shakespeare. Conversely, if I love Jane Austen (and I do, most ardently), I will reject Mark Twain’s scathing criticisms of Pride and Prejudice. But you, or someone else, may like and respect Twain’s opinion and therefore lend it some credence. Our biases influence our perceptions, so interpreting literature is a constant decision-making process.

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Graves from the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, UK. Readers connect with different works/authors/themes as a result of their individual background – this diversity affects our interpretive processes. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Hence, once literature is published, its meaning lies in the hands of the recipient. Authors’ intentions are powerful and significant, and this column, “On Literature“, will explore those ethical concerns. However, we aren’t necessarily bound by them. No one can really police our response to literature because it’s a very personal interaction. As a former English major, I definitely learned how to pick up on people’s partiality and respond to that, but ultimately, we form our own relationships with the materials that are presented to us.

So literature as media is oddly empowering: we can choose what we read, how we read it, and how we respond to it. We can be mindful of the contexts in which a work was produced, or we can simply read it at face value – and is either interpretation wrong?