Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book a Week, June 24

For various reasons (some travel, combined with things I need to finish), I thought I wouldn't be doing a book-a-week thing this week or next, but I thought of a nearly perfect book for the next two weeks, which manages simulatenously to be reasonably short and twofer. So, the next two weeks I will be doing Jane Austen's Sanditon & The Watsons, in the Dover edition that takes them from J.E. Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen.

Gilbert Ryle was once asked whether he ever read any novels at all, to which he replied that he read all of them every year, all six. Everybody knows The Six: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey. In fact, however, there are three unfinished Austen novels. The most important of these is Lady Susan, which is essentially complete but was probably never put into final form (its current format consists wholly of letters, which often served as the framework on which Austen built her stories, and Austen probably wasn't intending to leave it entirely in this form). You get the whole story, but not in an obvious novel form. I will definitely have to be re-reading Lady Susan at some point, since Lady Susan herself is Austen's best villainess -- brilliant, witty, charming, completely ruthless, so utterly selfish as to be completely oblivious to the needs of others, carrying on affairs with younger men just because she can, completely squashing her daughter's life just because it's convenient. Austen does a great job making her both very plausible and very wicked. But epistolary novels are a bit difficult to read. The other two unfinished novels are Sanditon (Austen's actual working title was The Brothers) and The Watsons.

The Watsons seems to have been abandoned completely after five chapters in about 1805. She seems to have abandoned it after her father's death, which possibly makes sense in light of the fact that the sickness is a big part of the backstory and the father in the story was intended to die. It has a very Austen-ish set-up. There is a family of two sons and four daughters; the main character is the youngest daughter, Emma, who gets along well with the eldest daughter, Elizabeth; Emma has grown up in the care of a wealthy aunt, and so is better educated than the rest of her family, but she has been forced to return to the fold by her aunt's foolish marriage. Marriage is a big issue all around for the daughters. How can one get more Austen-like than that?

Sanditon, on the other hand, is a later work and seems to have been abandoned after twelve chapters only because of Austen's ill health just prior to her death. (This same ill health had already forced her to rush Persuasion to get it published, which is why it is less polished than the others of the Six.) Sanditon is the name of a planned seaside resort, and its characters are real estate speculators and hypochondriacs, and there is a comic edge to the resort itself because it's mostly in people's minds -- it's just a tiny place that speculators are planning on improving, but gossip increases its fame even so. Very different from what we usually think of as Austen, it's supposed to be very good, highlighting just how much we all lost through her early death at forty-one or forty-two.

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