It’s a pleasure to introduce this guest post by Kathleen A. Flynn on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons. Kathleen’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Project, which Syrie James calls “clever, captivating, and original,” was published earlier this week. I loved the book and I agree with Paula Byrne that it’s “Brilliantly written and a must-read for any Jane Austen fan!”
Thank you to Harper Collins for sending me an ARC, which I read last month on a weekend trip to Prince Edward Island. Regular readers of this blog will know I often read books by or about L.M. Montgomery when I visit PEI. This time, I enjoyed reading one of my old favourites, Emily’s Quest, and discovering a new favourite in The Jane Austen Project. Over the past few months, during my rereading of the “Emily” novels, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the pressure Montgomery felt when she was writing the second and third novels in that series, pressure to provide her readers with the courtship plot they expected.
It was a delight to find the heroine of The Jane Austen Project, Rachel Katzman, addressing this topic in relation to Jane Austen’s life and work: “Many people find it strange, even tragic, that the author of such emotionally satisfying love stories apparently never found love herself, but I don’t,” Rachel thinks, just after she meets Jane Austen.
In Rachel’s opinion, Austen “was a genius: burning with the desire to create undying works of art, not a cozy home for a husband and children.” She “wrote the world she knew, and what she felt would appeal to readers. The marriage plot is interesting mostly for how it illuminates the hearts of her characters, what they learn about themselves on the way to the altar. She concerns herself with bigger questions: how to distinguish good people from plausible fakes; what a moral life demands of us; the problem of how to be an intelligent woman in a world that had no real use for them.” I underlined many other passages I thought were excellent, and I’m tempted to quote at length, but I’ll stop there and urge you to get a copy of this fabulous novel so you can read it yourself. (First, though, I hope you’ll read Kathleen’s guest post, below.)
Kathleen is a copy editor at The New York Times, and a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. She lives in Brooklyn. I’ve been following her on Twitter for a long time and I enjoy reading her blog. (You can also find her on Facebook.) I’m very happy that she’s celebrating her publication week by sharing some of her thoughts on Jane Austen’s writing process. Congratulations on the publication of The Jane Austen Project, Kathleen!
Here’s the description of the novel:
London, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters—a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.
Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.
But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the continuous convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile the woman she is with the proper lady nineteenth-century society expects her to be. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history intact and exactly as they found it . . . however heartbreaking that may prove.
And here’s Kathleen’s guest post on The Watsons:
It often seems like writing was easy for Jane Austen. There is the crazy brio of her juvenilia; early versions of three of her novels by her mid-20s; the subtle, complicated Emma completed in just one year. Seeing her letters in an exhibit at the Morgan Library a few years ago, I was amazed by the quicksilver flow of her thoughts, the perfection of her handwriting.
But things did not always go so well, as we see with The Watsons.
This incomplete novel, dating from her years in Bath (1801-1805) shares elements with the completed ones: keen insight into gradations of status, an interest in gossip, a scene set at a dance, a family heavy on sisters, a young woman seemingly destined to find a husband before the story closes. We are introduced, using dialogue more than exposition, to not just “three or four families in a country village,” but to an entire social world.
We learn that Emma Watson, raised by her loving aunt and uncle in comfort and the expectation of a tidy fortune, has been cast off after the uncle died and the aunt remarried unwisely. She’s returned to a family she barely knows and with scant means to support her, with manners that strike her older sister Elizabeth, who is kind but crass, as too “refined” for her setting.
It’s a bit gloomy, but there is also a lot of Austen’s comedy here as she explores her characters’ blind spots and snobbery. The opening does not seem so much bleaker than that of Sense and Sensibility. It’s a fascinating start, with so much going on, and so much promise. Whenever I read it, I am saddened by its incompleteness, and tormented by two questions. Why did she stop at around 18,000 words? And why did she keep the manuscript around anyway?
Did she feel there was a flaw in her plot? We know at least that Austen knew where the story was going, for family lore holds that she’d told Cassandra what would happen.
James Heldman, in an article in Persuasions in 1986, argued that the narrative approach in The Watsons is different – that there is less distance between the heroine and the narrator than usual, and it lacks the usual “narrative voice of Jane Austen telling us the story, informing us, guiding us, shaping our responses, standing between us and her characters as we together watch them live their lives.” He goes on to theorize that Emma Watson’s sense of displacement in her new home may be read as a dramatic rendering of the author’s own sense of unease in Bath.
Conventional wisdom is that Jane Austen was unhappy there. Her letters offer little guidance, unless absence is itself a clue. None survive between 27 May 1801 – after a flurry of them at the beginning of that year to Cassandra about minutiae of settling into their new home – and 14 September 1804. The 27 May letter, which anticipates that the sisters will soon be together again, concludes with this unintentionally poignant comment: “Unless anything particular occurs, I shall not write again.”
Perhaps something about how she lived there made fiction hard. Could she have lacked privacy, a suitable spot to work, or the ability to command her time enough to establish a routine? It seems ridiculous that someone so brilliant could be discouraged, yet something was holding her back. We must remember too, she was not yet a published author, even if the sale in 1803 of Susan (later Northanger Abbey) made her think she would be soon. Perhaps her writing did not seem sufficiently important to her family, or even to herself.
Or perhaps, contrary to the widely held view, she was enjoying Bath. Maybe instead of writing she was busy socializing, observing people and their quirks, storing up memories that would later be repurposed into fiction. I would prefer to believe this – it’s painful to imagine Jane Austen being miserable.
But as she neared 30, late in her time in Bath, we can guess she was at least sad, if not deeply depressed. She endured two punishing losses in quick order: the death of her friend Madame Lefroy, and that of her father, which was not only a personal blow but also a practical one, leaving her mother, her sister and herself in a precarious financial state and for several years without a settled home.
In The Watsons, Emma Watson’s father, a retired clergyman, is in poor health. Family tradition holds that Jane told Cassandra that he would die in the course of the story, forcing Emma to move in with her annoying brother.
Maybe creating a kind, dying, retired-clergyman father and then having her own kind, retired-clergyman father die was a little too much reality for Jane Austen. Many writers of fiction have at one time or another had the eerie sense of their own life starting to mirror what they’ve been writing about. It isn’t that they can see into the future or that by writing things they cause them to happen, though it can feel this way. It’s more that themes and preoccupations work their way to the surface, as possible future events are rehearsed in the imagination. Writing can be an escape from the limits of one’s own personal circumstances, but at the same time is tangled in them, however indirectly this may show up in the stories that emerge.
The move to Chawton in 1809 began an amazingly fertile period in Austen’s writing life – impressive by any measure, but especially in contrast with the years that preceded it, lending support to the theory that it was something about her way of life that had been the problem. She revised three of her existing novels, wrote three new ones, and started a fourth before being forced by illness to abandon it in early 1817. But she seems to have left The Watsons alone.
Did she think she might ever pick it up again and rework it? Or did she keep it around as reference source, to mine for ideas and phrases? Could it have come to seem too old-fashioned? Too dark? Though death is a plot device in Austen’s novels, like that of Mr. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, or Mrs. Churchill in Emma, it is never of characters we’ve come to know and care about. Maybe she realized killing Mr. Watson was a step she wasn’t prepared to take, that this was not the sort of writer she wanted to be. (“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” Mansfield Park, Volume 3, Chapter 17.) Seen that way, it is maybe not so much a false start as a learning experience, not a waste of time but a way station on her road to greatness.
Still, how I wish she had finished it.
Do you have a theory about why Jane Austen abandoned The Watsons? Add a comment below.