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NA428112 - AUSTEN, J.: Watsons (The) / Sanditon (Unabridged)

Jane Austen (1775–1817)
The Watsons • Sanditon


We can never know why Jane Austen, having started The Watsons, felt no inclination to return to it in later years, as she did to some other works. (The title is not hers but was provided by Austen-Leigh.) As it stands, the work has five chapters and is less than 18,000 words long. Though there is some evidence of revision, it still has the feel of a first draft, with abrupt shifts in the action and some holes in the plot. Had Jane gone back to it she would certainly have provided linking passages and dialogue to fill in the perceived gaps. Also absent are the spirit, the keen observations and wit that give so much pleasure in the completed novels. If nothing else, the work gives a fascinating insight into the novelist’s craft by showing how much still remains to be done after
the first outline has been drawn.

Mr Watson is a widowed clergyman with two sons and four daughters. The youngest of these is Emma, who has been brought up by a wealthy aunt and is better educated and more refined than her sisters. When her aunt contracts a foolish second marriage, Emma is forced to return to her father’s house, where she witnesses the crude designings of two of her sisters, both intent on finding husbands. Living nearby are the Osbornes, a great titled family, and Emma herself attracts some notice from the boorish young Lord Osborne, while an arrogant friend of his is determinedly pursued by one of Emma’s sisters. In the midst of this, she finds comfort in the kindness of her eldest and most responsible sister, Elizabeth.

Sanditon is the more fragmentary of the two pieces left unfinished by Austen. What we have amounts to perhaps a sixth of a complete novel, enough to provoke speculation as to how Austen’s genius might have developed while leaving the answer still tantalisingly uncertain. Unlike The Watsons, this is not a work set aside in favour of different projects. Jane Austen was seriously ill when she started on Sanditon, and indeed had less than six months to live. With six complete, almost flawless examples of her art to savour, we can hardly complain. Yet we must remember that she was only 42 when she died, scarcely even middle-aged by modern standards; who knows what further developments may have been germinating in her mind?

Sanditon, or what we have of it, certainly hints at the possibility of a new quality of atmosphere. In that respect the book appears fresh, innovative, and original. Jane Austen is writing here not about an old-established community but a new and rising world in the form of a modern seaside commercial town (based on Eastbourne). This is a society that is still in the process of being formed, described by her as ‘a young and rising bathing-place, certainly the favourite spot of all that are to be found along the coast of Sussex; the most favoured by nature, and promising to be the most chosen by man.’

Written by Hugh Griffith

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