Monday, 21 December 2015

Another Emma

Whilst many people are reading Emma together (2015 marks the 200th anniversary of Emma; and 5 days ago was Jane Austen's 240th birthday), I've just read another Emma by Jane Austen. 
It's called The Watsons.
The question is: so many great books out there to read, why do we read unfinished novels? To satisfy our hunger for anything by a writer we love who wrote so little? To see a work in a progress and therefore gain insight into the author's process? To better understand the other, finished works?
All of those reasons, I guess. And another: to speculate why the writer abandoned it.
Here is the plot: the Watsons have 6 children- 2 sons Robert and Sam, 4 daughters Elizabeth, Emma, Penelope and Margaret (I'm not quite sure of the order). Emma has been singled out to live with and be brought up by her aunt and uncle, like Fanny Price, but at the beginning of the story she returns to her family, without a cent and adding to the burden, after her aunt remarries to an Irishman and loses everything because of the husband's will, which, by the way, sounds like Middlemarch. Robert Watson is a money-obsessed philistine, like the brother in Sense and Sensibility. Penelope and Margaret are husband hunters, or to put it more elegantly, they are very "bent on marriage" in order to escape poverty, which sounds like some supporting characters in Jane Austen's 1st 3 novels. Emma Watson has the sharp eye of Fanny Price and Anne Elliot and the sharp tongue and confidence of Elizabeth Bennet, who likely would have turned out to be a distinct character if Jane Austen had stayed with her, considering how different the 7 heroines are (I count Marianne Dashwood as well). And as usual, we have a good guy that looks boring, like Edward Ferras, Darcy, Edmund Bertram..., and a dashing and charming guy that is a scoundrel and hypocrite, like Willoughby, Wickham, Henry Crawford, William Elliot... The former is Mr Howard and the latter is Tom Musgrave, at this point I don't quite know how to categorise Lord Osborne.
Do I wish Jane Austen had completed it? In a way, yes. Look at what Virginia Woolf has to say:
"... To begin with, the stiffness and the bareness of the first chapters prove that she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere. How it would have been done we cannot say — by what suppressions and insertions and artful devices. But the miracle would have been accomplished; the dull history of fourteen years of family life would have been converted into another of those exquisite and apparently effortless introductions; and we should never have guessed what pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her pen to go through..."
We don't know how it might have turned out- if curious, I'm curious because of my faith in Jane Austen.
To quote Woolf again:
"... But of what is it all composed? Of a ball in a country town; a few couples meeting and taking hands in an assembly room; a little eating and drinking; and for catastrophe, a boy being snubbed by one young lady and kindly treated by another. There is no tragedy and no heroism. Yet for some reason the little scene is moving out of all proportion to its surface solemnity. We have been made to see that if Emma acted so in the ball-room, how considerate, how tender, inspired by what sincerity of feeling she would have shown herself in those graver crises of life which, as we watch her, come inevitably before our eyes. Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial. Always the stress is laid upon character."
The scene, which Jane Austen reuses for Emma with Harriet Smith as "the boy" and George Knightley now "the kind young lady", makes me wonder and want to follow Emma Watson.
However, does this fragment have potential? I'm not so sure. Lady Susan, for all of its weaknesses of form and characterisation, gives me the feeling that if it had been rewritten so as to get rid of the epistolary form, and heavily revised, it might have become an interesting novel because of Susan Vernon alone. Jane Austen never comes that close to such a character- selfish, manipulative, scheming, cold-hearted and ruthless. Similar women can be found in the later works, but they are only in the background and seen from without whereas Susan is seen from within. Generally, the fault of The Watsons is similar to that of Lady Susan- in its early stage, the characters seem rather black and white. Worse, The Watsons appears quite simplistic, there is such a straight path- at the beginning of the story Elizabeth already tells Emma everything she needs to know about other family members and people in the neighbourhood and tells the truth, Emma already has good perception and correct impressions, the person she ignores she would eventually turn down, the person she dislikes in spite of his popularity is a jerk, the person she likes from the 1st she would eventually marry, in the fragment Emma Watson has perfect manners and kindness plus perceptiveness and doesn't seem to need any change or growth that many Jane Austen heroines experience. Of course one can argue that not all of them go through the same process, which would be repetitive, predictable and boring; Fanny Price and Anne Elliot don't, their stories are not of growth, but if we leave out Persuasion, which shows Jane Austen going in another direction at that point, the conflict of Mansfield Park is that the heroine is intellectually attracted to but morally repelled by and distrustful of a man. The conflict is enough for many readers to wonder whether she will choose Henry or Edmund eventually. It isn't a straight path, so to speak. If anything, it's Elizabeth Watson that has my interest- her declarations of indifference to Tom Musgrave, juxtaposed with all the little signs of interest and her incredulity at Emma's attitude, make clear that she's only denying.
No, I should stop there. It isn't fair to judge The Watsons, I don't know the whole plot, all I have is some opening chapters and a general idea about the ending. Who knows, Jane Austen might have done something magical if she had stayed with it. 
My thoughts now take another turn. If you put Jane Austen's novels in the same order as I do (NA=> S&S=> P&P=> MP=> E=> P), The Watsons is between Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, which somehow looks like a cross between the 2. Here is a young woman, independent, assured, fearlessly frank, artless and not at all superficial and mercenary like her sisters, and she goes to a ball, which is a marriage market, and meets some men. Doesn't that sound like Elizabeth Bennet? Instead of being prejudiced and mistaken, however, Emma Watson sees through everything and everyone and becomes the only person not to be infatuated with Tom Musgrave. But that's no fun. Jane Austen senses something wrong there, so what she does is bestow those attributes- sensitivity, perceptiveness and insight- on a character that seems like an opposite of Elizabeth Bennet- the quiet, timid, diffident Fanny Price. It is more interesting because, being more or less an outsider and being expected to be grateful, Fanny has no right to be obstinate and "irrational", and as she has been quiet all her life, the 1 time she refuses to comply, it becomes shocking, especially because others don't understand why she's not charmed with a man everyone else adores. In other words, The Watsons is not just a cross between the 2 works, it's a bridge.


  1. Di,

    Very perceptive commentary. I would never have related The Watsons to the other works. I agree with Woolf that this is an early draft and so really can't judge what it would have been like if finished.

    By the way, I have read both The Watsons and Sanditon and so regret that they were never finished.

    1. That's how my brain works, I think- I always associate or compare something with something else (sometimes it's good, helping me see connections right away, sometimes it's rather bad, especially when I make associations between fiction and life. Oh well).
      In the introduction, Margaret Drabble says that some people see The Watsons as a rough sketch for Emma, which to me doesn't make much sense. What do you think of that?
      I'm reading Sanditon at the moment.

    2. Di,

      It happens to me also. I'm reading something and it reminds me of another story or poem. It slows me down a bit as I think about that other story or poem.

      It's been a while since I read _The Watsons_, but I really can't think of a connection to _Emma_--perhaps _MP_ in a remote way.

    3. Oh. This is not too far-fetched, I hope?

    4. Di

      Emma in the Watsons was sent to live with relatives, just as Fanny Price was. But, she now has returned. As I said, "in a remote way."

      It's a matter of conjecture, but did living with the rich relatives change her in any way as Fanny had been changed by living at MP?

    5. Not as much, I think.