"There Is a Great Deal in Novelty": The Pleasures of the Watsons

Article excerpt

THIS ESSAY HAS GROWN out of a long and energetic email exchange between the authors, undertaken because we both love Jane Austen's fragment The Watsons but have not read a great deal about it recently that has helped us to appreciate it more. Ever since the publication of the eighth volume of Persuasions in 1986, containing several essays on this fragment of a novel, it has received relatively little attention as literature. An important exception is Juliet McMaster's splendid 1994 essay, "Emma Watson: Jane Austen's Uncompleted Heroine." McMaster focuses on the literary qualities of the fragment and, on that basis, considers how Austen would have developed it; she also extends a reading of the fragment set forth in her 1986 Persuasions essay, which sees Emma's excessive refinement as a major theme. Our conclusions differ in part because McMaster's focus lies in filling in the blanks to point toward completion; we wish to concentrate on enjoying the subtleties of what is already there.

The question that discussion of The Watsons usually raises is, why did Austen never finish it? (1) This query has received many responses, and although we will consider some of them later, we want to begin by approaching this work differently--not as a biographical puzzle but as if it comprised the first forty pages of a completed Austen novel. If it were Pride and Prejudice, for instance, we would have eight short chapters to read, and the last would take us to the witty and complex exchange at Netherfield between Elizabeth, Darcy, and Caroline Bingley on accomplished women. If it were Persuasion, we would, in five chapters, have witnessed the exile of Sir Walter and Elizabeth to Bath and Anne Elliot's arrival at Uppercross in order to minister to her sister's whines. The Watsons' forty pages fall somewhere between those two novels' openings in offering energy and depth and complexity of exposition. If Austen had finished the novel, we believe, it would have almost as many admirers as they. Obviously, that belief cannot be substantiated, but what we hope to show is that close attention to these forty pages as literature reveals comedy and subtleties of character and theme that make this fragment as challenging and pleasurable to read and think about as the openings of Austen's other works.

As is usual in these openings, the first sentence of The Watsons announces important themes and points us toward sources of comedy:

   The first winter assembly in the Town of D. in Surry was to be
   held on Tuesday Octr ye 13th, & it was generally expected to be a
   very good one; a long list of Country Families was confidently run
   over as sure of attending, & sanguine hopes were entertained that
   the Osbornes themselves would be there. (314) (2)

Right away, this sentence announces the rigid social stratification and snobbery that infuses the tale and establishes a superficial equation in this world between goodness and social rank. A "good" ball is one in which the local gentry are prominent--many "Country Families" attend--and which attracts the Osbornes, who, we soon learn, are the local aristocrats. The narrator's use of the passive voice underscores the prevalence of this shallow equation but keeps it from attaching to individual snobs. We must wait to encounter the many varieties of comic snobbery and rudeness practiced by Lord Osborne, Tom Musgrave, others at the ball, Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, and Robert and Jane Watson.

At the start, then, not individuals but the social world itself--everyone and no one--is indicted. That world alone seems to offer the ball that "was to be held" and seems to focus its attention on attendance, which "was generally expected" and "was confidently run over," so that "hopes were entertained." Social snobbery is thus proclaimed but disavowed in this grammatical formulation--just as the opening of Pride and Prejudice proclaims but uses the passive voice to disavow the "truth universally acknowledged" about the need of young women without fortunes for husbands who have them. …