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The Watsons by Jane Austen

March 8, 2010

The Watsons is one of Jane Austen’s earliest writing attempts, but it remains a fragment. She abandoned the book after only 40 or 50 pages. Somewhat surprisingly, the story focuses on a character named Emma and her family. Emma has been living with an elderly aunt for most of her life, but returns to her family after her aunt remarries without leaving Emma any money. Thus Emma becomes enmeshed in what we recognize as a classic Austen drama: she and her family are poor and the responsibility of providing for themselves rests entirely on the sisters’ ability to marry rich men. I found myself liking this story very much, and was actually shocked when I reached the end. I was sad that it was over, because I found myself very interested in the fates of some of the characters. In her introduction, Terry Castle postualtes that Austen may have abandoned this story because it was too dark, and Austen preferred to critique society with a wittier, gentler tone. I found this theory very convincing, since The Watsons does seem like a pretty bleak beginning for a novel. I could imagine a happy ending for maybe one or two of the sisters, but it seemed virtually impossible that the entire Watson family could conceivably find happiness. And for lack of a better description, many of the characters in The Watsons are quite mean! While I found this fragment an interesting study in how Austen’s work changed as she wrote more, I don’t know if I’d recommend this for a casual Austen fan. The story is fun, but it’s obviously surpasses by Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

I actually completed The Watsons a few of weeks ago. After a one or two week break, I started Sense and Sensibility (in a wonderful new gorgeous Penguin edition!) and I’m determined to read it slowly. This has been hard to do though, as I’ve found that I don’t remember huge swaths of the plot of this book. Even though I saw the movie relatively recently, the book just seems like an entirely different story! I even forgot that there was a third sister! More to come about that soon.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for the review of one of Austen’s lesser known works. It is dark and intriguing. We will never know why she abandoned the work and must be satisfield this other authors trying to finish it.


  2. I (and many others) equate the darkness of The Watsons to Austen’s probable mental state at the time. It is the only book she tried to write (that we know of) during the long gap between Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, at which time she was in limbo at Bath, bouncing from home to home, following the retirement of her father and his subsequent death. It isn’t until she is settled at Chawton, back in the peace and stability of the country, that she really picks back up the pen. This is part of what makes The Watsons such a very intriguing fragment.


  3. You know, I adore Austen, and I’ve read all of her novels a billion times, but I’ve never tried her fragments or juvenalia…I almost feel like reading things she didn’t intend for publication is inappropriate. But that’s irrational, and your post makes me want to give The Watsons a try.


  4. It’s hard not to gobble down Jane but read slowly in order to savor. It’s been ages since I read The Watsons and I don’t even have any recollection of what I thought about it. Obviously didn’t leave much of an impression.


  5. I thought your comments on the bleak future of the Watsons interesting–I’ve always been so caught up in Emma’s probable future that I hadn’t thought about the rest of them.

    When I saw this manuscript at the Morgan Library in January, I realized that this alone survived in it’s rough form, and I took a fancy that Cassandra couldn’t bear to destroy it as she did the drafts of the other works.


  6. I’m home visiting my family in Hong Kong, and I’ve been reading Persuasion, which doesn’t seem to fall into the category of a typical Austen drama. It’s more like nourishing the wound and pain for lost opportunity. I’m interested in reading The Watsons.



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