Friday, 12 February 2016

Jan Austen's 'The Watsons', Sale of its Manuscript; and All You Need to Know

What survives of the manuscript of Jane Austen's unfinished novel The Watsons was sold to 'an institution' by the auctioneers Sotheby's in London on 14 July 2011. It fetched almost a million pounds - £993,250 in fact. That's about 1.6 million US dollars at that day's rate.
The manuscript was not quite complete, as the first few pages had been sold separately long ago.
Jane Austen probably started writing The Watsons when she was 27 years old. It seems she intended to write a full novel but in fact she abandoned it when she was 29. Maybe the sudden death of her father had upset her too much for her to continue. She had completed only five chapters, less than 18,000 words.
The theme of The Watsons is familiar - the plight of genteel ladies with no inheritance. Their only salvation is marriage, or work in some branch of teaching. There was no better destiny than marriage to a man whom (if they were lucky) they loved. 
The events are few. There is a conversation between Emma Watson and her sister Elizabeth. Then Emma attends a ball. There are subsequent calls by potential suitors at the Watsons' house. Finally, the younger sister Margaret returns from a visit to her brother in Croydon, bringing him and his wife with her. 
The Watsons is full of the stuff Jane Austen loved working on - snippets of behaviour and conversation perfectly mirroring life in a village. She has mastered the art of making us see with the heroine's eyes, share her concerns and feel for her.
So why did she abandon The Watsons? Probably not only because she lost her father. I think she realised the story was becoming cluttered. Had she made a mistake in inventing Penelope Watson? This sister serves no clear purpose. Similarly, Sam the surgeon was still offstage and demanding attention. Was he worth it? Had enough interest been established in his love for Mary Edwards? Would anyone care if Mary married Captain Hunter, with whom she eagerly dances in Sam's absence? Perhaps the author realized Emma and Elizabeth alone could have generated all the narrative interest.
Even more of a problem was the plight of Emma. A quarter of the way into a novel, Jane Austen has dug her heroine into a gloomy situation from which it will take a mighty effort to extract her. From being the first object of hope and solicitude of an uncle who had formed her mind with the care of a parent, and of tenderness to an aunt whose amiable temper had delighted to give her every indulgence, from being the life and spirit of a house, where all had been comfort and elegance, and the expected heiress of an easy independence, she was become of importance to no one, a burden on those, whose affection she could not expect, an addition in an house, already overstocked, surrounded by inferior minds with little chance of domestic comfort, and as little hope of future support.
Four paragraphs later the novel breaks off. Emma has retreated to her father's sick-room, preferring to read there or converse with him when he feels well enough. So her best companion is an elderly, dying man. It is depressing. Perhaps Jane conceded that when you are in a hole it is best to stop digging. It is reasonable to speculate that the death in 1805 of Jane Austen's father, who had given her so much encouragement, just at the time when she was to describe the death of Emma Watson's father, left her with no heart to continue. Jane, her mother and Cassandra, living in Bath, which Jane never greatly cared for, were now impoverished and bereaved. Her decision was made.
Emma, beautiful, lively, kind and intelligent, has been brought up (like Jane Austen's brother Edward) by wealthy relatives. But at nineteen, she is forced to return to her relatively poor family. Her widower father is an invalid. Like her three sisters, she will need a husband. If the novel had been completed, she would surely have secured one: she quickly attracts three eligible men. At the ball, she stirs the hearts of local charmer Tom Musgrave, the aloof Lord Osborne, and the clergyman Mr. Howard.
Jane Austen introduces us to a group of thoroughly believable people. She achieves this not, as earlier, through letters, but through incident, dialogue and description. Dialogue at the start skilfully establishes characters and plot. Elizabeth tells Emma (and indirectly the readers) all we need to know about local families, their relative wealth, relationships and flirtations.

Elizabeth and Emma have a deep, mutual affection. While they are devoted to each other, their younger sisters are flirtatious and foolish (putting the reader in mind of the Bennets). Elizabeth Watson says of young Penelope: There is nothing she would not do to get married – she would as good as tell you so herself. – Do not trust her with any secrets of your own.... Elizabeth expects that Penelope 'will laugh' (as Lydia Bennet would) at the refined manners Emma's upbringing has given her. Unfortunately, Penelope is absent in Chichester, trying to catch 'rich old Dr. Harding' and Jane Austen does not get round to bringing her on to the scene. 

The attitude to marriage of both Emma and Elizabeth is shown well. Here, Emma speaks first. 

'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 never have... I do not think there are very many disagreeable men; – I think I could like any good-humoured man with a comfortable income...'.
Emma has been educated by private tutors at her aunt's home.
Sons in such families could enter a profession and thus obtain some income. But they found setting up home a good deal easier if they married into money. Emma's brother Robert - one of those mildly repulsive people Jane Austen portrays so well - is full of self-importance when we meet him, though he started out humbly enough as the clerk to an attorney in Croydon. He married Jane, the attorney's daughter, who brought six thousand pounds into the marriage. Then he took over the business. The other son, Sam, is hoping to marry Miss Mary Edwards, who is expected to inherit 'at least ten thousand pounds'. 
Any social gathering is an opportunity for the ladies to attract men. Emma offers to let her sister go to the ball in her place. Elizabeth is grateful but declines, saying, 'You are very pretty, and it would be very hard that you should not have as fair a chance as we have all had, to make your fortune. No Emma, whoever stays at home this winter, it shan't be you. I am sure I should never have forgiven the person who had kept me from a ball at nineteen.' 
Elizabeth, still unmarried and the same age as the author - twenty-eight - is realistic about her situation. Having failed to secure her first love, and faced with becoming an old maid, she is as philosophical as Charlotte Lucas.
'You know we must marry. – I could do very well single for my own part. – A little company, and a pleasant ball now and then, would be enough for me, if one could be young forever, but my father cannot provide for us, and it is very bad to grow old and be poor and laughed at. – I have lost Purvis, it is true, but very few people marry their first loves. I should not refuse a man because he was not Purvis.' 
The characterization of the selfish, snobbish and hypocritical three who arrive from Croydon is a highlight of the novel. There are deft Austen strokes of description and self-incriminating conversation. Robert, reunited with his sister after fourteen years, is more intent on settling with the post-boy, inveighing against the exorbitant advance in posting, and pondering over a doubtful half-crown, than on welcoming a sister, who was no longer to have any property for him to get the direction of. He heartlessly says to Emma: After keeping you at a distance from your family for such a length of time as must do away all natural affection among us and breeding you up (I suppose) in a superior style, you are returned upon their hands without a sixpence. Emma will have to find herself a husband: You must come to Croydon as well as the rest, and see what you can do there. – I believe if Margaret had had a thousand or fifteen hundred pounds, there was a young man who would have thought of her. He is all too ready to make clear that he looks forward to their father's death. 
His wife Jane is a snob, drawing attention to her 'very smart house', her 'genteel parties' and 'fine clothes'. Her manners are 'pert and conceited'. She boasts that her 'parties are very select and good. – I had seven tables last week in my drawing-room.' She insists that 'Speculation' is the card game to play, since it is all the rage in Croydon, but quickly switches her support to 'Vingt-un' when told it is the game played by the aristocrats. Knowing Emma is no longer to inherit her aunt's fortune, she looks down on her. Much of the satire in Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park is foreshadowed. 
Unsurprisingly, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Watson argue, even in front of Emma. Jane urges Robert to powder his hair and dress for dinner, as their fashionable friends do. Typically, he later lies that he did not have time to 'put a little fresh powder’ in his hair. (The use of hair powder became unfashionable after Pitt put a tax on it in 1795. Thereafter, men's hair became shorter.) 
In the fulsome younger sister Margaret, Jane Austen fastens on speech mannerisms. Margaret has mastered the art of smiling and speaking with 'a very slow articulation' suggestive of great emotion and sensibility. She is so 'delighted to see dear, dear Emma' that she can hardly speak a word a minute! 
'How charming Emma is!' – whispered Margaret to Mrs. Robert in her most languishing tone. – Emma was quite distressed by such behaviour...
At other times, on topics about which she has genuine interest, such as her rivalry with Penelope in husband-seeking, she speaks in her 'common voice', betraying her true self. 
Margaret selfishly fears she will have to share her room with Emma. 
'I suppose,' said Margaret rather quickly to Emma, 'you and I are to be together; Elizabeth always takes care to have a room to herself.'
'No – Elizabeth gives me half hers.' 
'Oh!' – (in a softened voice, and rather mortified to find she was not ill-used), 'I am sorry I am not to have the pleasure of your company – especially as it makes me nervous to be much alone.' 
Another promising portrait is that of the smug Tom Musgrave. Having inherited 'about eight or nine hundred pounds a year', he uses flattery and his good looks to make the girls fall for him. He is a poseur. Though not bright, he wants people to find him fascinating. He had a great deal to say and though with no wit himself, could sometimes make use of wit in an absent friend; and had a lively way of retailing a commonplace, or saying a mere nothing, that had great effect at a card table. He thinks it clever to leave people uncertain whether he intends to call on them. Emma sees through him: he seems very vain, very conceited, absurdly anxious for distinction, and absolutely contemptible in some of the measures he takes for becoming so.
In the Edwards, Jane Austen depicts the kind of couple she was to develop so exuberantly in the Palmers and the Bennets. They have petty disputes on unvarying topics with 'sturdy pleasantry'. They both know where to draw the line: they are 'so wise as never to pass that point'. 
And there are sharp exchanges between the intelligent Emma and impertinent, condescending men. Robert is so insensitive in the picture he paints of Emma's situation that he almost makes her cry. She wins our admiration for combating his patronizing arguments. 
'A pretty piece of work your Aunt Turner has made of it! – By heaven! A woman should never be trusted with money. I always said she ought to have settled something on you, as soon as her husband adied.' 
'But that would have been trusting me with money,' replied Emma, 'and I am a woman too. – ' 
'It might have been secured for your future use, without your having any power over it now. – What a blow it must have been upon you! – To find yourself, instead of heiress of eight or nine thousand pounds, sent back a weight upon your family, without a sixpence. – I hope the old woman will smart for it.' 
'Do not speak disrespectfully of her – She was very good to me...' 
Similarly, Emma is never overawed by the local aristocrat. Lord Osborne advises her to wear fashionable half-boots - 'nankin galoshes with black'. When she tells him they are not suited to walking in dirty country lanes and that she is unable to afford a horse, he suggests that money may be found if a woman is really determined. She boldly replies:
'Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.' 
Lord Osborne was silenced. 
Osborne is forced to think. When he addresses her again, it is with a degree of considerate propriety, totally unlike the half-awkward, half-fearless style of his former remarks. It foreshadows the effect Elizabeth Bennet had on Darcy.
With so many characters addicted to money and ostentation, the novel says much about social distinctions. The Watsons are on a low rung of middle-class society. Their domestic staff comprise a couple of maids and 'Nanny'. Their only means of transport is the 'old chair' pulled by an aged mare. Their friends the Edwards have the best house in the central part of the nearby town: it is 'higher than most of its neighbours with two windows on each side the door, the windows guarded by posts and chain, the door approached by a flight of stone steps'. They keep a 'man in livery with a powdered head' to answer the door. Mr. Tomlinson the banker has gone one better - he has a 'newly erected house at the end of the town with a shrubbery and a sweep'. 
At assemblies, the Osbornes of Osborne Castle deliberately arrive late and in style. The higher ranks also take their meals at more fashionable hours than the villagers: the Osbornes 'are but just rising from dinner at midnight'. The timing and naming of meals is a measure of social status. The Watsons end the day with supper at nine; but Tom Musgrave considers this 'insupportable': for him, at such an hour, 'dinner' is yet to come. 
Having lived with her wealthy aunt for fourteen years, Emma has the self-confidence and savoir faire, though not the money, of a higher class. Anticipating Elizabeth Bennet, she is indeed one of those attractive, witty and perceptive Jane Austen heroines. She finds Lord Osborne haughty and does not hesitate to say so. He should be more desirous of pleasing, and showing himself pleased in a right place
There is the usual comical Austen concern with her height: she is not more than of middle height – well made and plump, with an air of healthy vigour. – Her skin was very brown, but clear, smooth, and glowing – ; which with a lively eye, a sweet smile, and an open countenance, gave beauty to attract, and expression to make that beauty improve on acquaintance. 
His lordship is so keen to see more of Emma that he comes back after leaving the ball on the pretext of looking for his gloves 'which were visibly compressed in his hand' (a measure similar to that later adopted by Captain Wentworth). In the limited amount of interplay between them we certainly have a suggestion of the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. 
Tom Musgrave calls on her with an offer to drive her home in his 'neat curricle'. With some difficulty she makes him accept her refusal. He attempts the flattering reassurance 'You are quite safe, the danger is only mine.' Tom Musgrave's relationship with her is more akin to that between Wickham and Elizabeth. 
Jane Austen makes us see through Emma's eyes and judge by her standards. She knows some of her relations see her as a burden and despise her. We admire the way she holds her ground - resisting Tom Musgrave's innuendoes and Lord Osborne's arrogance. She stands up for women while intellectually defeating her patronizing brother. 
Another appeal of the novel is the picture it paints of country life. There is nostalgia in this: living in Bath, Jane Austen regretted being wrenched from the tranquil pleasures of Steventon. The novel depicts village life as full of innocent enjoyment rather than artificial elegance. The anticipation of a ball provides endless gossip. There is heaven in a glass of wine enjoyed by the fire. An 'additional muffin' is eaten in the 'snug parlour'. Men go to their 'quiet little whist club that meets three times a week at the White Hart'; ladies join the servants in dealing with 'the great wash'. Sisters in their cart rumble past the turnpike gate and enter 'the pitching of the town'. The old mare knows the way to favourite shops. It is so peaceful inside the house in the evening that a carriage can be heard down the lane. When it stops at the garden gate, all the family listen for footsteps and enjoy wondering who their visitor may be. 
The novel also has interesting things to say on the subject of preaching. Emma's father tells her about a sermon Mr. Howard gave. 
'I do not know when I have heard a discourse more to my mind... or one better delivered. – He reads extremely well, with great propriety and in a very impressive manner; and at the same time, without any theatrical grimace or violence. – I own, I do not like much action in the pulpit – I do not like the studied air and artificial inflexions of voice, which your very popular and most admired preachers generally have. – A simple delivery is much better calculated to inspire devotion, and shows a much better taste. Mr. Howard read like a scholar and a gentleman.' 
Like Hamlet discussing acting, Mr. Watson is surely reflecting the author's experience. Jane had seven clergymen in her immediate family (her father, two brothers, and four cousins). Her correspondence shows that she was acquainted with at least ninety clergymen. The art of preaching would have been discussed at home. Two ladies in Mansfield Park are married to clergymen (Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Norris) and the heroine marries one, as do the heroines of Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. Other memorable figures to marry clergymen are Miss Augusta Hawkins, Henrietta Musgrove and Charlotte Lucas. In The Watsons Emma is attracted by the clergyman Mr. Howard. It seems Jane Austen designed him as a kind and thoughtful hero in the mould of Mr. Knightley. 
Jane's sister Cassandra is said to have told nieces that Emma was eventually to have refused an offer of marriage from Lord Osborne and to have married Mr. Howard. 
In 1850, Jane’s niece Mrs. Catherine Hubback (1818-77), daughter of Jane’s brother Frank, wrote The Younger Sister, which is a ‘completed’ Watsons (starting the whole story afresh), probably inspired by what Cassandra told her of her late aunt’s intentions for story development. It is often dreary. Mr. Howard and Emma are indeed united, but not before Mr. Howard has had to cope with the discovery that his patroness Lady Osborne has fallen in love with him. Overall, there are too many minor characters and too much melodrama in Catherine’s novel.