Saturday, 28 September 2013

"'The Watsons' is a puzzle"


The Watsons was written by Jane Austen circa 1804, and was described as ‘a puzzle’ by Professor Sutherland of St. Anne’s College. The English Fellow of Oxford referred to it thus because of the muddle it has caused: we cannot be certain if it really is an unfinished novel, or if in fact it was written as a short story/novella, as Professor Sutherland believes. In my opinion it is doubtful that Austen’s intention was a novella, chiefly because she had barely introduced the plot before it was cut short.

The 18000-word story relates Emma Watson's adventures at a ball – Austen territory. However the tale is not at all typical of her writing, and in fact it is the longest account of a ball that Austen ever wrote. The remainder of the words tell about the preparation for the ball, and then the usual gossip that tends to take place on the proceeding days. This is a very compelling reason for readers to conclude that it was intended to be a novella – otherwise, it would have been a very long book indeed (considering she used almost 18,000 words to describe such a short period).

As I mentioned before, the plot gradually becomes more gripping throughout the story when it ends unexpectedly. What came of Emma’s affairs with Mr Howard? Is Tom Musgrave really falling for Emma? And will Lord Osborne gain Emma’s affection? These are just a few of the questions that I believe are left unanswered – it is true that perhaps Austen intended this, and decided to cut it short on a cliff-hanger, but somehow it seems a slight waste of such a riveting plot. However, it is not necessarily true that it was wasted: it is believed that many ideas were taken from The Watsons and were used in later novels (for example there is an obvious correlation between the character of Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, and Emma Watson). Many who have studied Austen in depth have also concluded that it was unfinished simply because she didn’t like it. Perhaps she thought that her heroin, Emma, was too boring – she was no Marianne Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennet. Maybe she did not believe that Emma Watson would also become one of the most well known protagonists of English Literature.

Finally, perhaps the most compelling reason to believe it is an unfinished novel is her father’s death. We believe that Jane Austen stopped writing The Watsons in 1805, coinciding with George Austen’s death. Furthermore, there is a strongly recurring theme of ailment and death in the plot, implying that her father’s steadily decreasing health intensely played on her mind. Emma’s uncle dies, and she returns to her family to find that her father is steadily growing ill – clearly death is a common topic for her at that time. For me, this is the most convincing evidence to suggest that it is an unfinished novel, rather than a finished novella. Despite the extended account of the ball, and the lack of a title or proper paragraph breaks, I believe that there are too many reasons that indicate an unfinished novel.

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