Saturday, 30 July 2011

'Lady Susan, The Watsons & Sanditon' by Jane Austen (1871)

This book is a little collection of Jane Austen works that went unpublished during her lifetime. It includes the complete novella Lady Susan and two unfinished novels: The Watsons and Sanditon. None of these stories are as good as her novels so I can't really recommend them to newcomers or casual fans. But for Janeites like myself this book will be a very interesting and worthwhile read! I really enjoyed Margaret Drabble's introduction to the book as well. I don't tend to comment on academic introductions to books because I generally find them quite stuffy but Drabble's was genuinely interesting and helped to put the texts into context. Lady Susan was a very early work that Austen wrote when she was still living in Steventon, Hampshire. The Watsons was one of the few things that Austen wrote when she was living in Bath and was probably abandoned after her father died. Sanditon was written after Persuasion and in the final few months of her life. 

Lady Susan
In some ways this is very different to Austen's novels. It's written in an epistolary format and the "heroine" is very different to the heroines in Austen's novels. Austen's other heroines are very likeable but Lady Susan herself is a scheming, devious, selfish cow and an appalling mother. She has more in common with Sense and Sensibility's Lucy Steele, Northanger Abbey's Isabella Thorpe and Mansfield Park's Mary Crawford than Austen's other heroines. She is witty and intelligent though so she's not wholly without positive features. Through a series of letters we read about her plot to seduce and marry her brother-in-law; her effort to rekindle her affair with her married lover; and her attempt to force her daughter into marrying a man she detests. We also read about Lady Susan's sister-in-law, Mrs Vernon, and her efforts to stop all this from happening. This novella isn't on the same level as Austen's novels. Although it does have a good plot, and isn't without its witty moments, it still isn't as amusing as Austen's other works. You can see why she later chose to write in third-person. A lot of the humour in Austen's novels comes from the wry, detached narration. Epistolary writing simply doesn't play to Austen's strengths as a writer as much. Still, this is a very interesting work to read because Austen's emerging talent is obvious. It's also the most satisfactory story in this book for me because I don't feel any frustration about it not being finished.

The Watsons
I can't even begin to describe how disappointed I was when I got to the end of this one! That's not because it's bad, quite the opposite! The Watsons is so enjoyable and it's such a shame that Austen didn't get the chance to finish it! I think The Watsons would have been a great novel and right up there with Austen's best had it been finished. It's funny and the plot is engaging. This is the story that's most in keeping with what you'd expect from Austen and the plot has elements of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. The heroine, Emma Watson, has gone back to live with her family after spending the last 14 years being happily brought up by her wealthy aunt. Emma begins to adapt to life with her sometimes vulgar family again and attracts the attention of three different men: the charmingly rakish Tom Musgrave, the cold Lord Osbourne, and the quiet, bookish Mr Howard. Emma Watson is a very likeable character. I liked her conversations with her sister Elizabeth, and her offering to dance with young Charles at the ball is much like Knightley's asking Harriet Smith to dance in Emma and a very kind thing to do. This story also has a major child character which is interesting as it's something that's unusual in Austen's other works.

It pains me to say it because I love Austen but I wasn't very keen on this story and it's my least favourite of the stories in this book. Even though it's much less clear how Sanditon would have ended than The Watsons, I'm less saddened by the fact that it wasn't finished. The characters in this just aren't as well-developed and endearing as those in Austen's other works - although saying that I did like Sir Edward Denham (who's very funny!) and the cheerful Mr Parker. The heroine, Charlotte Heywood, has some very likeable qualities (sensible, observant, etc) but she's a bit boring and Sanditon is much less focused on her than The Watsons is with Emma. Charlotte functions more as our observer into the comings-and-goings of the town and she herself isn't particularly interesting. However, I suppose if Austen had been able to continue with the story then she might have been able to develop the characters in better detail as she carried on writing. Sanditon is still worth a read though as it is well-written. Austen isn't really famed for being a descriptive writer but there's a particularly well-written description of Charlotte and the Parkers arriving into Sanditon.

Rating: 3.5/5

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