Thursday, 1 December 2016


Near the end of Jane Austen's first childhood notebook is a ‘novel’ that foreshadows her mature work. The Three Sisters is in letter form, which it handles skilfully. There is graphic detail and lively dialogue. Strongly delineated characters emerge. The theme, which was to concern Jane Austen throughout her adult fiction, is the relative importance in match-making of love and money.

Mary Stanhope has received a proposal from Mr. Watts but does not know whether to accept. She hates him; and he is old (thirty-two!), ugly and disagreeable; but he is rich and, if she does not secure him, one of her sisters will: she could not endure that. Mary is riven by the problem. Her sister Georgiana writes to tell a friend that she and her sister have tricked Mary into accepting Mr. Watts by making her believe they would gladly marry him, if he proposed to either of them.

Mr. Watts himself, says: ' I am by no means guided by a particular preference to you above your Sisters it is equally the same to me which I marry of the three' - the sentiments of a Mr. Collins!

Mary sets out her terms of acceptance in a long list of personal luxuries her future husband must grant her. When he refuses, she has to accept him on his terms. After he has gone, Mary says 'how I do hate him!' - a wonderful start for a marriage! However, she takes her sisters next day to their friends the Duttons, so that she may boast of her engagement. 

Typical of the conversations (here between Mary and her mother) is the following. It hints at the sharp dialogue that was to be a feature of Jane's later writing:

'...if you do not give him your final answer tomorrow when he drinks Tea with us, he intends to pay his Addresses to Sophy.'

'Then I shall tell all the World that he behaved very ill to me.'

'What good will that do? Mr. Watts has been too long abused by all the World to mind it now.'

Jane Austen was discovering that she had the power to produce not merely brief parodies and squibs but also a worthwhile novel in its own right.