Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: The Watsons

Yet Another Period Drama Blog

As part of Miss Dashwood's Birthday Week for Jane Austen she issued a Book Challenge for participants to read one of Miss Austen's novels or short stories. I've long known it was time for a re-read of The Watsons, and once I began I became so enthralled with the characters and their stories! I took ever so many notes and knew I absolutely had to do a full book review! 

The Watsons by Jane Austen

Penguin Classics Edition
Plot: The Watsons follows the large family of Mr. Watson, the sickly rector of Stanton. His youngest daughter, sweet and elegant Emma Watson, returns home to her family after being raised by her aunt. When Emma attends her first ball in the neighborhood her oldest sister Elizabeth drives her over to stay with the Edwards family who will be her chaperons. As they drive Elizabeth talks of their brothers and sisters who Emma barely remembers and advises Emma on the customs of the ball and the characters of the people she is likely to meet. At the ball much of the excitement happens when Lady Osborne and her large party comes in late. Among the party is ten-year-old Charles Blake who is disappointed when Miss Osborne breaks her promise to dance with him. Emma quickly asks him to dance the next two dances, thus earning the regard of the boy's widowed mother and his bachelor clergyman uncle. Emma is much looked at by awkward young Lord Osborne and flirtatious Tom Musgrave. The day after the ball Emma and the Edwards are visited by friends from the ball and Emma just escapes having to ride home to Stanton with Tom Musgrave, but is obliged to tell him plainly how little she thinks of Lord Osborne. The third day after the ball Elizabeth and Emma receive a mysterious visit from witty Tom Musgrave and Lord Osborne who sits next to Emma speaks only to talk about half-boots and hunting hounds. In the weeks that follow Emma and Elizabeth become great friends. Their sisterly felicity is interrupted by Emma meeting more of her estranged family including her troublesome sister Margaret, their snobbish lawyer brother Robert and his conceited wife Jane. Emma finds peace from her squabbling siblings by nursing her sickly father. When Robert & Jane go home Emma is much pressed to return with them for a long stay, but she decides to bear the odd humors of Margaret over the eccentricities of her brother and his wife. Jane Austen's writing ends here.

Characters: (with photos of how I imagine them)

Rev. Mr. Watson - The elderly rector of the village of Stanton and father of six children. He is widowed and rather sickly and sometimes unable to discharge his clerical duties. But he is "a man of sense and education".

Elizabeth Watson - Oldest Watson sister at age 28. She is passed her bloom and was disappointed in love, maintaining that her sister Penelope drove away her only love Mr. Purvis. She has a good heart and is sensible although not quite as refined as Emma.

Mr. Robert Watson - The oldest son of Mr. Watson. He went into the law and married the wealthy only daughter of his employer. He is "carelessly kind" and talks mostly of setting bills and arranging money.
Mrs. Jane Watson - Robert's wife who is "pert and conceited" - very pleased with her elevated position in life and her own finery. She and Robert have one daughter, Augusta, who is very spoiled.

Penelope Watson - Although only mentioned in Jane Austen's fragment I feel sure that she would have made an appearance later on. According to her oldest, Penelope is visiting a friend in hopes of marrying an elderly but rich Dr. Harding. Elizabeth advises Emma not to trust her.

Margaret Watson - Younger than Penelope but older than Emma. Margaret comes home from visiting brother Robert and is at first sickly sweet to Emma but her true nature soon comes out. She is convinced that flirtatious Tom Musgrave is in love with her and hopes to catch him.

Samuel "Sam" Watson - Elizabeth mentions this brother at the beginning of the story, he is just a few years older than Emma. Sam is reportedly a surgeon working in a nearby town and had been in love with Mary Edwards for two years.

Emma Watson - Youngest of Mr. Watson's children, age 19. Emma was raised by her Aunt Turner since the age of five and barely remembers her family. When her uncle dies her aunt marries again and the new husband whisks her aunt off to Ireland refusing to take Emma along. Disappointed in money and in her aunt Emma returns to her family a refined young woman. She is a very pretty young lady with great sense, kindness and elegance and thereby marked out as the heroine of the story.

Mr. & Mrs. Edwards - Great friends of the Watsons who live in the next town and are accustomed to having one or more of the girls stay overnight with them whenever there is a ball. Mr. Edwards is very courteous and enjoys sharing gossip with his wife, but he has a very clear sense of what he wants for his daughter's future. Mrs. Edwards is a kind woman and fond of her gowns.
Mary Edwards - The only child of Mr. & Mrs. Edwards, a pretty and sweet young lady. She blushes when Sam Watson is mentioned thus showing that she knows of his love for her but her. At the ball Mary dances every dance with officers, particularly with one Captain Hunter. Mary may seems confused on whether she likes Sam Watson or Captain Hunter best, but her parents seem to find neither young man quite suitable.

Captain Hunter & other officers - The first people Mary and Emma meet at the ball and dance with. I'm sure Captain Hunter would make an appearance later in the story when we find out who Mary Edwards chose to marry.

Tom Musgrave - A rich and charming young man who reportedly makes the rounds flirting with every young lady who crosses his path. He's toyed with the affections of Emma older sisters but she takes Elizabeth's warnings serious and is smart enough to dislike him from the start. Tom seems to find Miss Osborne's light features the model for female beauty.

Lady Osborne - "A handsome genteel lady of fifty" she is the widow of the country Lord and lives at Osborne Castle.

Lord Osborne - Lady Osborne's son and now the Lord of Osborne Castle. He is fine, cold, careless and awkward. Not fond of ladies company or dancing and rather out of his element in a ballroom. But when he sees Emma he is greatly attracted to her and makes a bother of himself at the ball (and later when he visits) by staring at her but speaking very little.

Miss Osborne - Lady Osborne's daughter who attracts the great admiration of Tom Musgrave. Jane Austen's idea was that she (or her mother) would be attracted to Mr. Howard who in turn would love Emma.

Miss Fanny Carr - Miss Osborne's friend who attends the ball and dances with Tom Musgrave. Not much is known of her but I feel sure she would be of importance to the story later on.

Mr. Howard - Lord Osborne's former tutor and now clergyman of the Parrish of Wickstead where Osborne Castle is located. He is "an agreeable-looking man, a little more than thirty" who asks Emma to dance as thanks for her kindness to his nephew Charles. Emma immediately likes him: "there was a quietly-cheerful, gentlemanlike air in Mr Howard which suited her" and he seems marked out as the hero of the story.

Mrs. Blake - Mr. Howard's widowed sister, she and her four children live at Wickstead with him. She is a cheerful woman and very thankful to Emma for dancing with

Charles Blake - The bright 10-year-old son of Mrs. Blake who is eager to dance at the ball. Miss Osborne promised him the first two dances but broke her promise and dances with Tom Musgrave instead. Charles is soon happy again when Emma asks him to dance and he chatters on about his siblings and Lord Osborne's horses. After the dance he informs he whispers loudly to Mr. Howard "Oh! Uncle, do look at my partner. She is so pretty!"

Austen Library Edition

Manuscript's History: When looking for information about The Watsons I scoured my bookselves and found a chapter devoted to it in Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels by Deirdre LeFaye which I highly recommend! Also there are two interesting portions about The Watsons in 101 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen by Patrice Hannon (facts 34 and 35) which were quite interesting.

It was in 1804, shortly after her novel Susan (an early edition of Northanger Abbey) was bought by a publisher, that Jane Austen began writing The Watsons. She already had two other novels fairly well completed but Elinor and Marriane (later Sense and Sensibility) as well as First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice) would undergo some heavy revisions before being sent to a publisher. Similar to her other novels this writing would tell the tale of a young woman from a poor family who deserves much better than her circumstances and will later marry for love and money. But unlike her other stories The Watsons has a decidedly more serious tone, more in the vein of her later writings, and the Watson sister's circumstances were to get even more desperate before the story ended. The family's poverty gives the four Watson daughters little choice but to fight for a good marriage, as older sister Elizabeth tells young Emma "you know, we must marry." Jane Austen wrote about 17,500 words of The Watsons before abandoning it. The untitled manuscript was kept safe during Miss Austen's lifetime and inherited by her sister Cassandra who later gave it to their niece Caroline Austen telling her how "Aunt Jane's" story was to end. The fragment was published in 1871 in James Edward Austen-Leigh's second edition of Memoir of Jane Austen at which time it was given the title of The Watsons. The reason Jane Austen didn't finish The Watsons is said to be because in the story elderly clergyman Mr. Watson was going to die suddenly, a scene which Miss Austen couldn't bring herself to write after her own clergyman father died suddenly in January 1, 1805.

Emma Watson by J. Aiken

Continuations: There have been a few continuations of The Watsons written, most are out of print. I haven't read any of them but I did find a few of interest.
--The Youngest Sister by Catherine Anne Hubback, published 1850. Born Catherine Anne Austen she was a daughter of Jane Austen's brother Francis Austen but was born after Jane's death. Even though she never met her "Aunt Jane" her Aunt Cassandra seems to have done a very good job of impressing Jane's memory on the young woman, so much so that she would write this continuation and write several other books. Her continuation is mostly based on how Cassandra told their family it was going to end but also takes on other issues important of Victorian women and changes the names of some of the characters. I found this article about Mrs. Hubback very helpful.
--Emma Watson by Joan Aiken, published 1996. Ms. Aiken's continuations and retellings of Austen's novels are quite well known and this book is to most popular of the continuations of The Watsons. The book picks up where Jane Austen's original work leaves off but with in Joan Aiken's own style detailing the everyday life of sisters Elizabeth and Emma Watson. From reading excerpts of the book and particularly the prologue it seems that Ms. Aiken had little regard for how Cassandra Austen told her nieces the story was end. Instead she seems to add several new characters to make Emma Watson's ending adventurous and happy. Seems like it would be quite a disappointed for any Janeite hoping for a sensible continuation.

"...looked at her husband's head..."
"A woman never looks better than on horseback." - Lord Osborne

"Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one." - Emma Watson

'Emma was glad when they were joined by the others; it was better to look at her sister-in-law's finery than listen to Robert, who had equally irritated and grieved her. Mrs. Robert, exactly as smart as she had been at her own party, came in with apologies for her dress.
"I would not make you wait," said she; "so I put on the first thing I met with. I am afraid I am a sad figure. My dear Mr. W.," (to her husband) "you have not put any fresh powder in your hair."
"No, I do not intend it. I think there is powder enough in my hair for my wife and sisters."
"Indeed, you ought to make some alteration in your dress before dinner when you are out visiting, though you do not at home."
"It is very odd you should not like to do what other gentlemen do. Mr. Marshall and Mr. Hemmings change their dress every day of their lives before dinner. And what was the use of my putting up your last new coat, if you are never to wear it?"
"Do be satisfied with being fine yourself, and leave your husband alone."
To put an end to this altercation and soften the evident vexation of her sister-in-law, Emma (though in no spirits to make such nonsense easy), began to admire her gown. It produced immediate complacency.
"Do you like it?" said she. "I am very happy. It has been excessively admired; but sometimes I think the pattern too large. I shall wear one tomorrow that I think you will prefer to this. Have you seen the one I gave Margaret?"
Dinner came, and except when Mrs. Robert looked at her husband's head, she continued gay and flippant...' - Robert & Jane Watson

Holliday Granger
Jane Eyre 2011
My Musings: I really had so much fun reading this fragment of a novel! As always Jane Austen's style of writing is poignant, charming and witty. The characters are all very interesting and as the hero is marked out fairly soon in the story it is fun to imagine what twists and turns the plot would take in order to bring the heroine to her planned happy end.

Perhaps the most amusing thing for me was seeing how many different characters and plot ideas in The Watsons made in into later novels! For instance:
  • The heroine Emma Watson has a that sounds almost exactly like Emma Woodhouse, yet her character is more like Anne Elliot in her refinement, fortitude and sweetness. 
  • Emma has a bit of conversation with Lord Osborne about differences between men and women which reminded me of Anne Elliot and Captain Harville's discussion of who loves longest. 
  • Emma's history of having been raised away from her numerous siblings by a wealthy aunt have echos of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park
  • Good Mr. Watson with his sickness and his bowl of gruel in the evenings reminds me greatly of Mr. Dashwood in Emma, although he doesn't have enough speaking scenes to truly develop his character.
  • Notes I read in the edition I read state that Tom Musgrave was originally christened Charles Musgrave in an earlier manuscript but the characters has little in common with the Persuasion character Charles Musgrove and more similarities than are desirable to the villain Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park
  • The description and later reports of Mr. Howard sound very like Mr. Knightley but he is a clergyman like Edmund Bertram. 
  • Elizabeth Watson's early disappointed love and loss of bloom sound very similar to Anne Elliot in Persuasion. 
  • There was also one quote "I am no card player" which Anne later says in Persuasion but she means it, whereas when it is said by Emma's sister-in-law Jane Watson it has the exact opposite meaning.
But on the other hand there are many similarities to characters and plots which Jane Austen had already written in her early editions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.
  • Five poor sisters (well only four) looking for good matches had been done in P&P
  • Brother Robert and his conceited wife sound very similar to John & Fanny Dashwood in S&S
  • Elizabeth and Emma become devoted sisters similar to Elinor and Marianne Dashwood or Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. 
  • Emma was to refuse a proposal from rich and proud Lord Osborne in the same pattern that Elizabeth Bennet refuses Mr. Darcy's first proposal. 
  • Also several of the names are used in a way that are similar to the other stories.
I'm not quite sure that the plot as it was running would have worked out quite convincingly and maybe Jane Austen was discovered that too. Perhaps in reviewing The Watsons after the publication of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen found pieces there that she used to create new characters and plots in the three future novels. So as much as I wish she had finished The Watsons I'm also sort of glad she didn't because if she had we might not have Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion as they now are!

So I think this might be my favorite fragment piece by Jane Austen. It might be fun to hazard a continuation some day! :)

If you haven't read The Watsons or Jane Austen's other fragment works I encourage you to pick up a copy of Penguin Classic's Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon (a delightful edition with lovely notes!). You can also read The Watsons at

Have you read The Watsons?
Has anyone else noticed these similarities to Miss Austen's other novels?

Very Truly Your Devoted Janeite,


Melody said...

Lovely review! =)

I read a good portion of The Watsons on a trip one time, and liked it quite well; the conversations I could hear clearly in my head; I liked Emma, and I liked the ball, etc. And I liked how it mentioned Emma dancing with the little boy. That was funny. =) I shall read it some time or other, rather soon perhaps. Within the next year. =) I'm reading Lady Susan right now, which of course I'll review when I've finished it. =)

In Lady Susan, I'm finding quite a few similarities between some of the characters in her novels....which I'll talk about later too. =) Maybe I'll copy you and use pictures from other period dramas for the characters. Tehe

Jemimah C. said...

This is a wonderful and very detailed review of The Watsons, Miss Laurie! I've been wanting to read the book as well as Lady Susan and Sanditon.

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