Saturday, July 07, 2012

Jane Austen, Sanditon; and The Watsons


Opening Passage of The Watsons:

The first winter assembly in the town of D. in Surrey was to be held on Tuesday, Octr 13th, & it was generally expected to be a very good one; a long list of coutnry families was confidently run over as sure of attending, & sanguine hopes were entertained that the Osbornes themselves would be there.--The Edwards's invitation to the Watsons followed, of course. The Edwards's were people of fortune, who lived in the town & kept their coach; the Watsons inhabited a village about 3 miles distant, were poor & had no close carriage; & ever since there had been balls in the place, the former were accustomed to invite the latter to dress, dine & sleep at their house, on every monthly return throughout the winter.

Summary: The background to the story of The Watsons is that one of the daughters in a family of four daughters and two sons, Emma Watson, is sent at a young age to reside with a wealthy aunt, where she receives a good education, and where it is no doubt hoped that she will gain her fortune. Unfortunately for Emma, however, her uncle dies and her aunt imprudently marries someone else; Emma is sent back to her family, whom she has not seen in a while. The Watsons, as the above opening suggests are poor, and the father is in bad health. All the daughters are desperately seeking husbands, and not averse to stealing potential candidates from others (including their own sisters). Emma is very discouraged by this, although she likes the relative kindness of her sister Elizabeth. The two men who are primarily in sight are Lord Osborne, who is clearly attracted to Emma, and Tom Musgrave, the roguish, self-important young friend of the Osbornes, who is the premium beau of the neighborhood and who is the current -- and somewhat elusive -- object of pursuit for Emma's sister Margaret.

We don't actually have enough to get much of a story, but there is some splendid characterization in this abandoned fragment. Perhaps the best part of the story we currently have occurs when Emma attends the Assembly Ball. At the ball is a ten-year-old boy named Charles Blake, who is very excited because the much-admired Miss Osborne had promised to give him the first two dances, and is thus very disappointed when she breaks the promise in order to dance with her current favorite. Emma shows her character by dancing with the boy instead; this brings her considerable approval from Charles's family (and enthusiastic admiration from Charles himself) and, combined with the fact that she is both elegant and somewhat pretty, gets her noticed by both Lord Osborne and Tom Musgrave, and starts the ball rolling on what promises to be a very intricate chain of events and plants the seeds of the love triangles in the book, of which it seems that there would have been several. It also seems to give us the hero of the novel, Mr. Howard, who is young Charles's bachelor uncle. (He is a parish clergyman, gentlemanly, and is instantly liked by Emma, which all seems to clench the deal. And if that weren't enough, the ten-year-old boy's first introduction of Mr. Howard to Emma is "Oh! Uncle, do look at my partner. She is so pretty!") The whole scene is a masterpiece and deserves study in its own right: we get a precise and concise depiction of the characters of perhaps half the major characters in the fragment from it.

Despite the name, Emma Watson is not really much like the Emma, Emma Woodhouse from the novel Emma; she is sweeter and more restrained. The basic set-up, however, is very Austen-ish. However, it looks like it could have become somewhat dark if it had continued; Mr. Watson was definitely slated to die at some point, and is in bad straits by the end of the fragment.

Favorite Passage from The Watsons:

She was at leisure, she could read & think,--tho' her situation was hardly such as to make reflection very soothing. The evils arising from the loss of her uncle, were niether trifling, nor likely to lessen; & when thought had been freely indulged, in contrasting the past & the present, the employment of mind, the dissipation of unpleasant ideas which only reading could produce, mader her thankfully turn to a book.

Opening Passage of Sanditon:

A Gentleman and a Lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings and E. Bourne, being induced by Business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough Lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand. The accident happened just beyond the only Gentleman's House near the Lane -- a House which their Driver, on being first required to take that direction, had conceived to be necessarily their object and had with most unwilling Looks been constrained to pass by. He had grumbled and shaken his shoulders and pitied and cut his Horses so sharply that he might have been open to the suspicion of overturning them on purpose (especially as the Carriage was not his Master's own) if the road had not indisputably become worse than before, as soon as the premises of the said House were left behind -- expressing with a most portentous countenance that, beyond it, no wheels but cart wheels could safely proceed.

Summary: The people in the carriage turn out to be a Mr. And Mrs. Parker; they are assisted by a Mr. Heywood. Thomas Parker turns out to be extraordinarily voluble -- the first five chapters consist largely of a little travel, some minor comments by other characters, and endless commentary by Mr. Parker. The commentary is actually quite funny because Thomas Parker is an enthusiast, and what he is an enthusiast for is Sanditon, a tiny little place which he hopes to turn into a seaside resort. Nothing short of actually reading the work can convey just how much of an enthusiast for Sanditon he is; the man can turn anything into an advertisement for Sanditon, and everything he does has something to do with his obsession. The reason he is forcing his driver to drive the carriage where carriages should not go is that he is hoping to find a doctor in Wellingham and persuade him to come back to be yet another one of Sanditon's attractions. As it happens, and this summarizes Parker's character perfectly, he got the wrong Wellingham. Parker twists his ankle and has to stay with the Heywoods for some time; since both couples are quite pleasant, they get along very well and (as one would expect) Parker attempts with all his might to get the Heywoods to come to Sanditon. Since the Heywoods have fourteen children, they are very, very settled, however, so Mr. Parker's exhortations are to no avail. He does succeed, however, in letting one of their daughters go to Sanditon, and thus enters the heroine, Charlotte Heywood, level-headed, sensible, and agreeable. And, fortunately for herself and the hilarity of the novel, quick with a witty but tactful answer in any situation, no matter how absurd.

We meet a number of other characters in Sanditon, including the savvy and stingy Lady Denham and Sir Edward Denham, whose goal in life is to be a dashing and dangerous seducer -- think of a Lord Byron wanna-be who has read too many novels, and you have him down to T. We also meet the rest of the Parker family, enough to learn that all the Parkers seem to suffer from a congenital excess of energy, which they all put into talking too much, and that Thomas Parker's obsession with Sanditon is far and away a healthier use of this energy than is found in his sisters, Diana and Susan, and youngest brother Arthur, all of whom devote it to hypochondria and helping people whether they need it or not. The incomplete fragment we have goes to twelve chapters, but it is only in the last chapter that we meet Mr. Parker's brother, Sidney Parker; and since Austen's own working title for the work was The Brothers (Sanditon was given to it by Austen's family after her death, since we get lots of Sanditon and relatively little of any of the brothers except for Thomas). Sidney would certainly have played an important role, perhaps even as the hero, since he seems quite sensible (no known obsessions in sight), and of the brothers Thomas is happily married and Arthur is a lazy hypochondriac.

A lot of characters! We get a lot more backstory in this fragment, but the story itself doesn't advance any further. This is a pity, because what we have is hilarious. The major novels all have their humor, and should probably be read in a more humorous spirit than some of them are, but it's still very restrained. Anyone who has read Austen's juvenilia, however, knows that she has an unuproarious, and if one may dare say it of Aunt Jane, wicked, sense of humor. We get it full blast here. Some of the characters border on Dickensian, there are jokes, and practically every page has a funny situation. The work was ended by Austen's final illness, and shows what a tragedy that was for the history of the novel, because the end result would have been side-splittingly funny.

Favorite Passage in Sanditon: So many to choose from! Charlotte's discussion with Sir Edward on novels would be one, but it's quite long. Here's a snippet from a discussion Charlotte has with Arthur Parker.

"What! said he--Do you venture upon two dishes of strong green tea in one eveng?--What nerves you must have!--How I envy you.--Now, if I were to swallow onlyone such dish--what do you think its effect would be upon me?--" "Keep you awake perhaps all night"--replied Charlotte, meaning to overthrow his attempts at surprise, by the grandeur of her own conceptions.--"Oh, if that were all!--he exclaimed.--No--It acts on me like poison and wd entirely take away the use of my right side, before I had swallowed it 5 minutes.--It sounds almost incredible--but it has happened to me so often that I cannot doubt it.--The use of my right side is entirely taken away for several hours!" "It sounds rather odd to be sure--answered Charlotte coolly--but I dare say it would be proved to be the simplest thing in the world, by those who have studied right sides & green tea scientifically & thoroughly understand all the possibilities of their action on each other."

Recommendation: This is Austen, so of course they're both very highly recommended, for all that The Watsons was abandoned and Sanditon was left incomplete and in draft by her death. If there is only one incomplete-fragment-of-a-novel that you ever read in your life, both of these, especially Sanditon, are excellent candidates for the honor.


  1. Oh, I like Charlotte. I read Sanditon once long ago, but was so unfortunate as to stumble across a version that had been "finished" by some current novelist who coyly styled herself as "A Lady of Fashion" or some such stupid moniker. One could tell right where the transition was; the ridiculous denouement had the heroine captured by a highwayman and abducted in a coach, an extremely unAusten-esque situation. Austen imitators always have this weakness: they try too hard for the emotional romantic frisson rather than thrilling through insight and truth.

    Speaking of Austen imitators, I recently made the mistake of reading "A Death at Pemberley" or "Death Comes to Pemberley", a mystery by P.D. James. This was doubly foolish because Austen imitations are never good, and I've never liked a mystery by P.D. James. Anyway, it had little of Austen to recommend it -- James had written a mystery which shared all the names of Pride and Prejudice characters but little else. I can't say much for it except that it helped me reach my quota in the library summer reading contest.

  2. Charlotte's hard to beat; we see very little of her, but what we do see is top-notch Austen heroine, without a doubt.

    I do want at some point to read Austen's niece's continuation of The Watsons, although by all accounts it's not very Austen-esque (the plotline is all Austen, derived from the fragment and how Austen planned it, but it got turned into a Victorian triple-decker). But in general I shy away from Austen imitations for precisely the reason you note.

  3. Charlotte's hard to beat; we see very little of her, but what we do see is top-notch Austen heroine, without a doubt.

    I do want at some point to read Austen's niece's continuation of The Watsons, although by all accounts it's not very Austen-esque (the plotline is all Austen, derived from the fragment and how Austen planned it, but it got turned into a Victorian triple-decker). But in general I shy away from Austen imitations for precisely the reason you note.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.