Jane Austen’s Unfinished Novel – The Watsons

Emma Watson was a bit like Fanny Price.

Fanny Price is the heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. In one part of the story, Fanny Price left her wealthy adoptive family and was sent to go and live with her birth family. Emma Watson, one of the lesser-known heroines of Jane Austen’s, was in exactly the same situation, but even worse – she hasn’t even got the hope and prospect of going back to her Mansfield Park equivalent. She’s stuck in a remote parsonage with three unmarried sisters and a muddy road.

Today’s Reading Journal entry is Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, the Watsons. I’ll give you a summary of the story and we’ll look at some characters, especially Emma and her sisters.

Summary of the story

Emma was one of four sisters and two brothers from a country clergy family. She was adopted by wealthy aunt and uncle when she was five. She was “the first object of Hope & Solicitude to an Uncle who had formed her mind with the care of a Parent, & of Tenderness to an Aunt whose amiable temper had delighted to give her every indulgence”, “the Life & Spirit of a House, where all had been comfort & Elegance, & the expected heiress of an easy Independence…” We later learnt that the “Independence” was worth eight or nine thousand pounds. If you remember Mr Darcy had ten thousand pounds and Mr Bennett had only two thousand pounds, you’ll realise that it was a huge amount of money.

But her uncle died and her aunt married an Irish Captain and they moved to Ireland without her. So now 19, she had to move back to live with her old and sick father and her three sisters, and became a financial burden to her family once again. She was now “of importance to no one, a burden on those, whose affection she could not expect, an addition in a house, already overstocked, surrounded by inferior minds with little chance of domestic comfort, & as little hope of future support.”

The story starts with a long conversation between Emma and her eldest sister Elizabeth, on the way to the Edwardses where Emma was going to stay and from there to her first ball in this neighbourhood.

By the way, I really like the Oxford World Classics edition. There are many useful notes, and they seem to be more geared toward beginners. For example, one note explains that although there are four Watson sisters, only the eldest is Miss Watson. Emma is Miss Emma or Miss Emma Watson. You can deduce that much when you read many classics, for example, Miss Pinkerton and Miss Jemima Pinkerton in Vanity Fair. But it’s nice when there’s a note to confirm your detective work.

Another note explains the different types of carriages and their significance. The Edwardes have a coach, and the Watsons have an old chair. The note says, “The private closed coach, protecting occupants from weather, with the horses to pull it and coachman to drive it, is a marker of the Edwardses substantial wealth.” The Chair, in contrast, is “a modest two-wheel mode of transport, without springs (and therefore uncomfortable), open to the weather, drawn by a single horse, and requiring no coachman.”

It’s helpful to know because Austen often uses different kinds of transport to signify people’s economic circumstances. It’ll be even better if there could be some pictures!

Let’s go back to the conversation between Emma and Elizabeth.

In this conversation, Elizabeth shared all her tips and tricks for the ball which she had been part of for the last ten years (but no husband found). A few characters were introduced: the Edwards family, Tom Musgrave – a great flirt (who had a go at all three Watson sisters already), the treacherous sister Penelope – ruined Elizabeth’s happiness, sister Margaret – gentle only when there were visitors, brother Sam – who was in love with someone who did not return the feeling and a married brother Robert. You learn a great deal about Elizabeth herself in this conversation as well: she might not be as “refined” as Emma, but she is definitely good-hearted.

This opening conversation occupies almost six pages. And after some more talk and delay, we get to the highlight of this short unfinished novel: the ball. At the ball, we meet the Osborne group, the prominent family of the place. Each person in the group was briefly described and the dance started.

And here’s the most pretty scene: Emma dancing with a ten-year-old boy. Charles was promised the two first dances with Lord Osborne’s sister. But as soon as Miss Osborne saw some dashing officers as more exciting dance partners, she broke her promise and really disappointed the little boy. Emma overheard the conversation and “did not think, or reflect; – she felt & acted”, “‘I shall be very happy to dance with you Sir, if you like it.’ said she, holding out her hand with the most unaffected good humour.”

And they did dance and they even had some pleasant conversation. When they had a break and were on their way to refreshment, Charles said in a delighted loud whisper, “Oh! Uncle, do look at my partner. She is so pretty!” And this Uncle was Mr Howard, former tutor of Lord Osborne and now the clergyman of the parish where the Osborne lives. And this was obviously who Emma was going to marry – everything about him pleased her, she owned it to Elizabeth out loud, her father approved and thought highly of him.

Dancing with Charles was done out of Emma’s goodwill but it was certainly a good move. Because she was pretty, she was new to the neighbourhood and she had this unusual dance partner, she attracted the attention of the Osbornes’ immediately.

Cassandra, Jane’s sister, seemed to know how the rest of the story would go. Her account agreed that Howard was to marry Emma in the end but the totally unexpected thing was that Emma’s rival was Lady Osborne, Lord Osborne’s mother. Jane Austen’s heroines are usually about the same age as herself. I find this quite interesting and unusual.

After the ball, Lord Osborne and Tom Musgrave paid two sisters a surprise visit. Lord Osborne clearly liked Emma very much and even changed his haughty behaviour for her sake, which reminds me of Mr Darcy. Cassandra said he would propose later on but Emma refused.

Then Emma’s sister Margaret returned home with their brother Robert and his wife Jane. All three were not very pleasant. In fact, so unpleasant that Emma gave up their society altogether and sat with her father each evening. According to Cassandra, their father soon died and Emma had to live with Robert and Jane.

A few characters

First of all, Emma.

Emma enjoyed the ball and that says something about her. Firstly, she had a better upbringing and lived in a higher style than her sisters and this neighbourhood. She was superior but she didn’t look down on people. Just compare Emma to her sister-in-law Jane. Jane preferred a selected group for a party and not mixing with certain people. Emma was not conceited. Secondly, considering how unfortunate she has been, she was remarkably cheerful!

I like the fact that she could speak up for herself and her aunt and uncle when her brother Robert spoke ill against them. I also like that she was not pressured into doing things against her judgement and she was firm with her decision. For example, she heard how Tom Musgrave behaved badly toward all her three sisters and watched him with her own eyes and decided not to accept Musgrave’s carriage and his escort home.

Second, Emma’s eldest sister Elizabeth. I like her.

She was kind-hearted. She convinced Emma to go to the ball instead of her because Emma was 19 and should have “as a fair chance as we have all had, to make your fortune. – No Emma, whoever stays at home this winter, it shan’t be you.” She tried to persuade Emma to go have some fun when there was a chance because Margaret is unpleasant to live with: “there is always something lively going on at Croydon, you will be in company almost every day, & Robert & Jane will be very kind to you. – As for me, I shall be no worse off without you, than I have been used to be; but poor Margaret’s disagreable ways are new to you, & they would vex you more than you think for, if you stay at home.”

It sounds like Elizabeth has been managing the home all on her own with no help from Margaret or Penelope. Robert was very brutal about the fact that Emma was now a burden, but Elizabeth never mentioned a word.

Though Elizabeth was slight foolishness: she kept talking about Tom Musgrave! Elizabeth warned Emma that Musgrave always paid great attention to every new girl but was never serious. But then he was very nice and wealthy, no wonder every girl around here loved him. But I didn’t love him although he liked me and he never liked anyone better than he liked me. After the ball, Elizabeth heard how Emma refused Musgrave’s carriage. She said, you did very right, but that was very firm of you, I could have never refused him. You didn’t dance with him? Really? But you must have liked him? He’s not a favourite of mine but do you really not like him? Alright then, I’m glad you don’t like him, I was a bit worried you would like him too much…

Another example that illustrates the fact that Elizabeth’s manner was inferior to Emma’s in class and upbringing was her reaction to Emma’s choice of a dance partner. Emma didn’t like Musgrave because he didn’t behave like a true gentleman, Elizabeth clearly loved him because he flattered her. The one Emma did like, Elizabeth thought too proud and grand.

“Danced with Mr H. – Good Heavens! You don’t say so! – Why – he is quite one of the great & Grand ones; – Did not you find him very high?-” “His manners are of a kind to give me much more Ease & confidence than Tom Musgrave’s.” “Well – go on. I should have been frightened out of my wits, to have had anything to do with the Osborne’s set.”

The third sister, Margaret. I don’t like her. She was selfish and conceited, using one slow pretentious voice to speak to people she wished to please and a sharp and quick voice to Elizabeth and the maid. She presumed Musgrave’s visit was for her (when it was for Emma). When she was disappointed, she made life difficult for everyone.

Last but not least, Penelope. We don’t meet Penelope in person, only via some conversations. One catchphrase was that there was nothing she would not do to get married, even if that was to betray her sister. Penelope was away when Emma got home, scheming to get herself married to a rich old man. After hearing Elizabeth’s account of Penelope, Emma’s conclusion was that Penelope “must have too masculine & bold a temper.” She sounds delightfully like Becky Sharp!

What’s Austen’s purpose in creating four sisters, especially remembering the famous five Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice? There are Lydia and Kitty at one end, chasing after officers, doing inappropriate things, eloping, and Marry at the other, completely serious and boring. Then you have Lizzy and Jane in the middle.

I wonder if Austen had the same reason in mind. By comparing and contrasting, the reader ends up admiring Emma the most. Emma and Elizabeth are the kind and pleasant ones and Margaret and Penelope seem to be the nasty and unpleasant ones. Elizabeth and Penelope are OK to marry without love, and it looks like Emma and Margaret are determined to marry with love. Elizabeth and Margaret both still love Tom Musgrave and think highly of him, meaning they prefer a flatterer to a true gentleman. Emma clearly would accept nothing but a gentleman.

There are many more characters like Emma’s brother Sam and Emma’s aunt and her new husband. I would be very interested in meeting them but we would never have a chance. What a shame!

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