Lady Susan, the Watsons, Sanditon eBook: Page2

Jane Austen (1871)

  The case that Jane Austen was a frustrated wit, forced by a changing society to admire quietude and virtue against the grain of her own nature, has been forcefully and sympathetically argued by feminist critics. But this case presents its own difficulties. It is hard to question some of Austen's expressed dislike of aspects of the worldly life. She disliked London and most of what it represented, and there is no envy in her portrait of Mary Crawford's childhood or Lady Susan's apartment in Upper Seymour Street. She herself fainted, like an old-fashioned heroine, when told that her family was to move from the country to Bath. When Lady Susan says 'I take town in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village,' she is condemning herself out of her own mouth, for there can be no doubt that Jane Austen herself loved the country and its virtues. In Mansfield Park, she has written a wonderfully complex novel about the tension between the two impulses - the witty and the good, the town and the country, the sophisticated and the simple - and has nobly allowed the reader to infer, from the structure of her characters, that only the slightly under-sexed can be truly good. It is not a simple issue, and she does not take sides simply. It could be argued that she could not have written so well of a Lady Susan had she not had a repressed impulse to malice in her, and certainly in her letters there are sparks of a far from charitable wit, such as she would never have allowed her 'good' heroines, and for which Emma would certainly have been reprimanded by Mr Knightley. Did she, like Emma, find it difficult to control her sharp tongue in public, and did she find pleasure in expressing her worst thoughts through other characters? Did she find people like the de Courcies and the Vernons self-important and dull?

  The problem with Lady Susan is its lack of balance. The eponymous protagonist has all the best lines, and runs away with the novel. In Mansfield Park and Emma, the tension is so perfectly judged that one remark from either faction can shake one's faith or sway one's sympathy. Frank Churchill is at times so amusing, the Bates at times so appalling, Fanny at times so dull, Henry and Mary Crawford at times so delightful, that one's mind is kept in a perpetual unrest, a perpetual re-assessment of the central issues. But in Lady Susan, the opposition is dull. Frederica, the besieged daughter, is allowed to write only one letter of her own: she spends the rest of the time weeping or playing the pianoforte. Reginald de Courcy is gullible, the deceived wife, Mrs Manwaring, is thin and ugly, the sister-in-law, Mrs Vernon, is motivated against Lady Susan by obvious sexual jealousy. There is no acceptable positive world to set up against Lady Susan's corrupt one: Churchill, the home of the Venions, has none of the reality or happiness of Mansfield Park or Highbury. The choice, a not particularly attractive one, is between an eighteenth-century London where wives deceive their husbands whenever possible and laugh about it with their friends, and a dull country house full of unidentified children. There is, even in the convention's own terms, no Clarissa to set against the dashing Lovelace. It was very much the vogue to admire Lovelace, despite Richardson's avowed intentions: we see how much Jane Austen herself disapproved of such admiration in Sanditon. She should have seen that Lady Susan was bound to appear more attractive in the absence of an effective counter-balance.

  One cannot leave Lady Susan without a word of regret. What a pity it is that she never, in her mature work, returned to the subject of a handsome thirty-five-year-old widow. What scope there would have been, what choices offered. Perhaps one should be grateful that she attempted it at the age of twenty, before she decided she could not or should not handle such a theme. In writing of Lady Susan's limitations, one finds fault only in the light of her own later achievements. In comparison with many of its predecessors, Lady Susan holds its own.


  The Watsons is a tantalizing, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels, had she finished it. In it, she uses one of her own and one of the world's favourite stories - the story of the poor girl who is courted by a prince, and who, despite great odds, marries well and lives happily ever after. The story is in this case complicated by the fact that the heroine, Emma Watson, is also a disappointed heiress, and about to become an orphan, as the novel opens: and also by the fact that she is clearly going to reject her suitor prince, in favour of his less elevated friend. It is a plot full of possibility, and its heroine is extremely promising, a fine mixture of Elizabeth Bennet (embarrassed by vulgar relatives), Fanny Price (the orphan exile) and Emma Woodhouse (the fastidious heiress). It could all have worked out beautifully, and one has to ask oneself why she chose to abandon it after writing only seventeen-and-a-half thousand words or so.

  The Watsons was written in Bath, on paper watermarked 1803: Fanny Lefroy, a granddaughter of Jane's brother James, recorded that 'Somewhere in 1804 she began the Watsons, but her father died early in 1805 and it was never finished.' It was the only work belonging to this Bath period: the earlier novels had been written at Steventon, the later ones were to be written at Chawton. We know that she never liked Bath, and the hostile portrait of it and its petty social life that she gives in Persuasion appears to be very close to her own feelings. She loved and admired her handsome, intelligent father, who believed in her work, encouraged her literary aspirations, and was the first to approach a publisher on her behalf, whereas her mother had a reputation for being a self-centred hypochondriac. Recent biographies (notably Claire Tomalin's, 1997: see Further Reading) have qualified this view of Mrs Austen, but nevertheless the prospect of life in an impoverished all-female household with her mother and her sister Cassandra cannot have been welcome. It may be that when she felt the urge to write again, the melancholy associations of the manuscript were too strong for her, and she laid it aside.

  Her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, puts forward another possible explanation for her abandoning of the work, which, although not convincing, is extremely interesting, for it comments on one of the most striking features of The Watsons. Of all Jane Austen's principal families, the Watson family is the most humble, the least affluent. Other Austen families had their financial difficulties, but they all managed to live with more style and elegance than the Watsons, who ate their dinner off a tray, were waited on by Nanny, and had to worry themselves about domestic matters like 'the great wash'. Austen-Leigh, in his Memoir, writes:

  My own idea is, but it is only a guess, that the author became aware of the evil of having placed her heroine too low, in such a position of poverty and obscurity as, though not necessarily connected with vulgarity, has a sad tendency to degenerate into it: and therefore, like a singer who has begun on too low a note, she discontinued the strain. It was an error of which she was likely to become more sensible, as she grew older, and saw more of society; certainly she never repeated it by placing the heroine of any subsequent work under circumstances likely to be unfavourable to the refinement of a lady.

  He is right in pointing out that the later heroines, Fanny, Emma and Anne, all live in more refined surroundings, but one must also add that Jane Austen had no fear of describing poverty or even vulgarity: Mrs Jennings is vulgar and good, the Steeles are vulgar and bad, the Prices in Portsmouth are certainly much worse off than the Watsons, and the Bates and Jane Fairfax in Emma are extremely badly off, as is Anne's friend Mrs Smith in Persuasion. Moreover, Emma Watson, unlike her sisters, had had hopes of better things. Like Jane Austen's own brother, she had been adopted in infancy by rich and childless relatives, and had been brought up to a higher standard of luxury and refinement than the family home at Stanton could provide: the plot promised some fine distinctions between manners and morals, and at least once in the short piece we have we see the down-to-earth, unpretentious Elizabeth showing better feeling and therefore better manners than her more ladylike sister.

  Her nephew's dislike of 'low' subjects was a symptom of the changes that had taken place in society since his aunt's day. The Victorians prided themselves on having refined the coarseness of the eighteenth century, and on having made its simplicities more elegant.
One cannot read without some pain the remarks of Jane Austen's favourite niece Fanny Knight (who stood herself in the same relation to the Austens as Emma did to the Watsons): Fanny, who had been loved and encouraged for years by her aunt, writes to a sister:

  Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane for various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been for her talent, and if she had lived 50 years later she would have been in many ways more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich and the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre and they of course tho' superior in mental powers and cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes.

  In the Memoir, Austen-Leigh records some of the changes that had taken place, and which were presumably on the way in during his aunt's lifetime: he describes the average country home, such as the Austens would have kept throughout Jane's childhood at Steventon, and notes that dinners were more homely, with less glitter of cutlery and silver, and potatoes considered still something of a rarity: furniture was also more homely, and there would be only one sofa, and rarely a pianoforte, while the chairs would be simple and uncomfortable. Entertaining was unostentatious: the country towns would have a monthly ball, such as the one which opens The Watsons, but many informal dinners would end with an extempore dance, if there were enough couples and enough space on the floor. Ladies, he confesses, 'took a personal part in the higher branches of cooking and... did not disdain to spin the thread of which household linen was woven. Some ladies liked to wash with their own hands the choice china after breakfast or tea.' It is with relief that he goes on to assert, 'I am sure that the ladies there [at Steventon] had nothing to do with the mysteries of the stew-pot or the preserving-pan,' though again he is forced to acknowledge that they did wear pattens, that curious archaic working-class type of footwear, in order to negotiate the muddy village lanes. Not for them the elegant nankin half-boots that Lord Osborne recommends to Emma Watson.

  Leigh-Austen's account brings to life vividly a dying way of life, which is embodied in The Watsons, and which, far from being vulgar, has for later readers a profound charm. That Jane Austen preferred it to the false modernity of the sister-in-law from Croydon, and the affected social graces of Tom Musgrave, is obvious enough. And moreover she manages to communicate its appeal. The drive in the carriage to town, the tired old horse who stops at the milliner's, the anticipation of the ball, the games of cards, the quietly-comfortable gossips over meals, the glasses of wine, the ball itself, are all represented as extremely attractive, unaffected, innocent pleasures. We are certainly not invited to despise Elizabeth Watson because she busies herself with the great wash, or with helping the servants, or with preparing dinner, nor are we meant to sneer at Mary Edwards because she greets her new friend with her hair in papers. The quiet little world, with its occasional excitement, is evoked and enjoyed, not mocked: it is Osborne Castle that is subjected to criticism, rather than the standards of Stanton. The great house, in this novel, is far from being the symbol of order and dignity that it is in Mansfield Park: it is the Watsons and the Edwards, humbler though they are, who maintain the old traditions in the face of change.

  And yet, of course, poverty is no virtue in Jane Austen's eyes, and the prospects of the Watson girls are in grim reality far from good. Poverty has turned the weaker of them into husband-hunters, and Penelope and Margaret are seen to act as badly and with more deliberate calculation than the younger sisters in Pride and Prejudice. (Q. D. Leavis suggested, ingeniously but not very convincingly, that The Watsons was an early rough sketch for Emma, but the similarities with Pride and Prejudice are perhaps more striking, and may have played some part in her abandoning the project - she did not want to be drawn back into the same ground). There is a strong suggestion that it takes a great deal of character to stand up against adverse circumstances, and that those who fail may be in part forgiven. Elizabeth is certainly forgiven for her outspoken account of her need for a husband. She speaks no less than the truth. As Jane Austen was well placed to realize, the plight of a poor old maid was not a happy one: a rich one, as Emma Woodhouse remarks, can make herself feared and respected, but a poor one is constantly subject to ridicule. Elizabeth's statement about marriage is very moving:

  You know we must marry. - I could do very well single for my own part. - A little company, and a pleasant ball now and then, would be enough for me, if one could be young forever, but my father cannot provide for us, and it is very bad to grow old and be poor and laughed at. - I have lost Purvis, it is true but very few people marry their first loves. I should not refuse a man because he was not Purvis.

  Jane Austen herself, with a sad note of realism, wrote to a friend Anne Sharp (who was, significantly, a spinster and a governess), just before her death, saying, 'In short, if I live to be an old Woman, I must expect to wish I had died now; blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, and before I had survived either them or their affection' (22 May 1817).

  It does not seem to occur to Jane Austen to criticize the social circumstances which made the old maid's life so dependent. She was not Charlotte Bronte, whose bitterness in Shirley is violent. Her tone has more in common with that of Elizabeth Gaskell, who, while she exposes the genteel poverty of the old ladies of Cranford, admires and enjoys the details of their quiet and heroic lives. Both Austen and Gaskell manifest a polite, middle-class hostility to the aristocracy and a pleasure in the trivia of daily life, and both describe with comic effect the sense of intrusion suffered when the outside world, in the shape of Man, breaks into a small, female, domestic circle. When Lord Osborne and Tom Musgrave catch Elizabeth and Emma about to eat their dinner off a tray at an unfashionable hour we are almost in the world of Cranford, and we certainly are when Tom arrives for the evening unannounced. His carriage is heard for miles in the silence of the country evening: the family wonders who on earth it could be, and are finally even more perplexed when they hear footsteps and conclude, 'They were the steps of a man.'

  A man was indeed an intrusion of some importance. Jane Austen has been criticized for the triviality of her subject matter, which is nothing but parties, dresses, quarrels, engagements and marriages: but one must remember, as The Watsons forcibly points out, that engagements and marriages were then, unlike now, the events which determined the entire future of the female half of the race. A whole career and every prospect of happiness hung on finding the right (or at times, any) man. So it is not surprising that the process of discovering the man was a theme to be treated with some seriousness. There was no other destiny: heroines could do no other than marry. The period before marriage was the most decisive part of a woman's life, and the only period where choice played a considerable part. Emma Watson, we gather, is to reject a peer. The choice there is indeed a major one - when Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady rejects Lord Warburton, we still feel that she, nearly a hundred years later, has made a difficult decision. But Isabel Archer, of course, had other options. What other options were open for Emma Watson? Would it not have been her family duty to marry Lord Osborne? When she says to her sister, 'We must not all expect to be individually lucky. The luck of one member of a family is luck to all,' she is not voicing a pious platitude, nor exhorting herself to rejoice for others as much as she 'would for herself: she is stating a financial reality. A poor family would do better if one of the members married well: witness even the disagreeable Mr and Mrs Robert Watson's concern to marry off their sisters. And Lord Osborne would have brought real wealth and a certainty of future comfort for the entire family.

  But Jane Austen's characters, or at least those characters which are held up for our respect, do not marry for money. Her pragmatic remarks about marriage and money, and her dislike of socially ill-matched couples, have led some to believe that her outlook was mercenary, and that she approved the idea of marrying for wealth. She certainly did not approve of marrying without adequate means of support: she was no romantic. On th
e other hand, all her main characters marry for love, and while some of them are lucky enough to love where money is, there is no suggestion that they seek it. We gather that Emma Watson, like Fanny Price, was to marry a clergyman; it would have been very pleasant to see her reject Lord Osborne. The rejecting of lords is classic stuff in English fiction, and Jane Austen could have made as fine a scene from it as Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy. For Emma is a spirited girl, and she would have done it in style. Already, at their second meeting, she manages to put him very firmly in his place with her splendid comment on his advice that she should take up riding: 'Female economy will do a great deal my lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one,' she says, and one feels that through her Jane Austen was expressing the indignation of a whole class of women, to which she herself belonged. This is not exactly Charlotte Bronte's manner of rebellion, but it is brave enough.

  Emma Watson would of course have been peculiarly well placed to speak up for herself. She had been brought up, one gathers, amidst some wealth, and had thought her prospects were good. She is refined: we feel her recoiling even from kind Elizabeth's language and expressions. She is also confident and assured, in a way that Elizabeth cannot be. So when she feels herself being attacked, she lacks the humility of poverty, and answers back - she defends herself against her brother, Tom Musgrave and Lord Osborne. It's significant that Elizabeth assumes that Emma must be 'afraid' of Tom Musgrave, a suggestion which Emma (not having met the young man, who turns out to be quite pleasant in some ways) repudiates rather grandly by saying 'No indeed - I dislike and despise him!' Elizabeth clearly cannot conceive of despising a young man with an independent income: Emma still has the confidence of her upbringing and finds it easy enough. On the other hand, there is the suggestion that some of Emma's refinement is, as Elizabeth suggests, misplaced: when Lord Osborne and Tom call unannounced, it is Emma that is ashamed of her family's simple manners, whereas Elizabeth is saved from mortification by 'her simpler mind, or juster reason'. One would have liked more such distinctions. Was Jane Austen herself repenting slightly of having made Elizabeth and Jane Bennet suffer so much from the embarrassment of their relatives in the eyes of the grand and the wealthy? The plot would surely have provided some more interesting examples of false and true refinement.