Jane Austen has long been one of my favourite authors, ever since I read my mother’s copy of Pride and Prejudice and since then I have re-read it several times and her other full length novels too. But I’ve never read Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon before. In fact it was only reading Carol Shields’ biography of Jane Austen quite some years ago now that I discovered that she had written these books, none of which were published in her lifetime. Lady Susan is a finished novella, whereas The Watsons and Sanditon are two unfinished fragments. Lady Susan and The Watsons were first published in 1871 by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen, including an account of Sanditon . The full text of Sanditon wasn’t published until 1925.
According to Margaret Drabble’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition there is some evidence that Lady Susan was probably written between 1793-4, when Jane Austen was about 20 years old. Drabble thinks this is the least satisfactory of the three stories, but I can’t agree with her view. I was completely taken with it.
Told in a series of letters, Lady Susan is the story of an unscrupulous widow who plans to force her daughter into a marriage against her wishes. Lady Susan is an attractive and entertaining and totally wicked character, who nevertheless almost manages to fool people for some of the time at least. She is also trying to captivate her sister-in-law’s brother, whilst still holding on to the affections of a previous lover.
As I was reading Lady Susan it reminded of Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, not just because both are epistolary but also the content – manipulative and evil characters without any moral scruples, who delight in their power to seduce others. I wondered if it was possible that Jane Austen had known of this book. It was published in 1782, so it is possible that she knew of it, even if she had not actually read it.
To my mind Lady Susan is unique in Jane Austen’s works and I was delighted to read it. It’s written with style, confidence and humour convincingly illustrating 18th century morals and manners.
Jane Austen began writing this in 1804, her father died in 1805 and she never finished it. Its main character is Emma Watson who after fourteen years of absence returns to her father’s house after being brought up by a wealthy aunt. She had grown up in an affluent household and until her aunt had remarried she’d had expectations of an inheritance. She joins her three unmarried sisters, living with their invalid father and looking for husbands whilst struggling for money. Mr Watson is a clergyman, so on his death they will lose their home. Maybe it was the parallel with Jane and Cassandra Austen’s own situation that caused Jane to abandon the novel when her own father died.
In some ways it is a little like Pride and Prejudice with its account of a ball and Emma Watson has a spirited nature similar to Elizabeth Bennet’s. Women without money were often obliged to marry for money, but Emma doesn’t want to. Her sister Elizabeth points out that it is ‘very bad to grow old and be poor and laughed at‘, whereas Emma thinks she would ‘rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.’
I liked The Watsons but with just this fragment to go off it is a bit basic and does seem rather similar to Pride and Prejudice. I wished she had finished it.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sanditon, even in its unfinished state. It’s the last fiction that Jane Austen wrote, beginning it in January 1817, the year she died. She was ill and the subject of health is one of its themes, but not in a serious or gloomy way. It has a lively, bright and humorous tone, with three of the characters being hypochondriacs, wonderfully satirised by Jane Austen.
The other theme is change in the form of the development of a seaside resort at Sanditon. It conveys the spirit of change of the times as Sanditon is developed by two of the landowners, Mr Parker and Lady Denham from ‘a quiet village of no pretensions‘ into ‘a fashionable bathing place‘. The two of them, realising its potential of becoming profitable ‘had engaged in it, and planned and built, and praised and puffed, and raised it to a something of young renown – and Mr Parker could think of nothing else.‘
It extols the benefits of sea air and sea bathing, Lady Denham decries the need for a doctor saying it would only encourage the servants and the poor to imagine they were ill – and pronouncing that if her husband had never seen a doctor he would still have been alive, ‘Ten fees, one after the other, did the man take who sent him out of the world. – I beseech you Mr Parker, no doctors here.‘
Sanditon contrasts the old world with the new upcoming world. Mr Parker has moved from his old comfortable family house set in a sheltered dip two miles from the sea to a new elegant house, which he has named Trafalgar House, not far from a cliff from which there is a descent to the sea and the bathing machines. Granted it has all the ‘grandeur of storms’, which rocked their bed whilst the wind rages around the house.
There is so much more in these stories than I can write about here (this post is far too long anyway). I shall enjoy re-reading them in the future. They are so different from each other, probably reflecting the different periods of her life when they were written. And I can’t decide between Lady Susan and Sanditon which one I like best.