This next foray into Austen in August comes courtesy of Penguin books (and Nudge) who were kind enough to send me a review copy of both this and Love and Freindship, both of which are being reissued at the start of September. Although I had read all three of the stories contained in this book, this edition with its accompanying foreword from Margaret Drabble elevates them from mere literary curiousity to stories with an appeal all of their own.
As Drabble points out, Austen was an author caught in transition between the close of the bawdy eighteenth century and the dawn of the prim and proper nineteenth. While the cliched view of Austen may be of the maiden daughter of a country parson with strait-laced sensibilities, books such as these reveal another side – a woman who occasionally wrote to shock. The first novella is Lady Susan, the epistolary novella in the early part of Austen’s career, then the abandoned fragment of The Watsons and finally the incomplete Sanditon.
While several of Austen’s more-celebrated novels began life in epistolary form, Lady Susan was the only one which remained so. In the postscript to the story, a wry comment from the author on the strain put on the postal service by all these letters, makes it clear that Austen found the form constraining. The novel form was itself in its infancy, with writers such as Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney modelling the epistolary novel as the height of fashion – yet here was Austen already experimenting and deciding that she wished to do things differently. Drabble ponders whether this was because Austen’s own letters were so functional – understood only by their recipients and generally concentrated solely on the lives of close family. Either way, Lady Susan is an oddity in that she exists in a format which Austen gladly abandoned.
Lady Susan is peculiar too in its central heroine – a thirty-five year old widow with a wandering eye. Indeed, Lady Susan is every inch the pantomime villainess – adulteress, unfeeling mother, unstoppable flirt and arch-manipulator. In short, she is exactly what a sheltered parson’s daughter might dream up if asked to imagine a Wicked Lady. Even when Lady Susan writes cheerily to her friend of her plans to spend the night with a married man, the sin itself remains remarkably sterile. There is a feeling of escapism, as if Austen is having a great deal of fun scripting the words of a very naughty woman. The only other time she seems to do so is in the guise of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, but here the scarlet woman has been given top billing in her own spin-off. Indeed, all other characters fade into the background as dreadful stick in the muds – Lady Susan’s worthy sister-in-law, her pathetic daughter Frederica and of course, the haughty but arrogant Reginald who falls under Lady Susan’s spell. Not a one of them possess a scrap of Lady Susan’s wit or energy for life. She is like a Scarlett O’Hara with added menace. However, the characters also lack the same polish of Austen’s later works and we can sense Austen’s frustration that she cannot follow them into scenes which take place beyond the bounds of letters. Nonetheless, Lady Susan remains a fascinating literary artefact.
By contrast, The Watsons feels like promise unfulfilled. The heroine Emma Watson has been brought up by a wealthy aunt and uncle with the expectation of becoming their heir, but now finds herself unceremoniously deposited back with her own impoverished relations. With husband-hungry sisters snapping at her heels and a haughty local aristocrat sniffing hopefully in her direction, poor Emma already appeared to heading for some complicated times before her promised happy ending. It is striking how familiar the prose feels to Austen’s other novels – tantalising even as we see the bud of a promising story doomed never to reach full bloom. Drabble suggests that The Watsons might have been like a flipped Pride and Prejudice, with Emma the newcomer in town rather than the male figure. Equally, since Emma was already seeing through Lord Osborne, Austen seems to have been intending a novel where the heroine chose the good man over the rich one – overturning the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice. There are such lovely moments though in The Watsons; Emma’s first ball where she dances with the ten year-old boy who has been looking forward for weeks for his dance only for Miss Osborne to disappoint him – Austen has created a heroine who is allowed to come to the rescue of another. Emma Watson seems as though she had the potential to stand alongside Austen’s sturdiest heroines – the abrupt finish feels like a true loss.
Sanditon feels like a true shift in tone compared to its fellows – it opens with the overturn of a carriage, a far more dramatic prelude than ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged …‘ Set in a seaside town and peopled with insincere and ridiculous characters who share a tendency towards hypochondria. The central character Charlotte Heywood has all the naivete of Catherine Moreland and the prissiness of Fanny Price and yet lacks either character’s charm. Drabble posits that perhaps the novel was never intended to be finished, that it was written while Austen was dying and only ever intended as a distraction – something which allowed the author to mock the medical types and the invalids with whom she was forced to mix. Yet there are still moments of levity, such as the ludicrous Edward Denham who fancies himself a Lovelace figure such as in the novels of Samuel Richardson and hopes to press his advances on the impoverished Clara Brereton; that lady however sees what he is about and through her the author assures us with withering disdain that there is no risk of Clara being seduced. Unlike The Watsons which shows every sign of following a set pattern, there is no way of knowing what direction Sanditon might have taken, or even if Austen ever decided herself.
Reading snippets such as these can feel rather like listening to ‘previously unreleased’ recordings from singers such as Eva Cassidy or Amy Winehouse who met untimely ends. We feel robbed by these geniuses of their craft who were taken far too young, and so we accept this unfinished material as being better than there being nothing more at all. It is frustrating to feel the potential of what there ought to have been had fate been kinder. What came across from reading this material was a sense of knowing the author better, a fuller understanding of her practices and creative process. Drabble’s wonderful introduction puts into the context what these works represent. Her words allow us to see the three stories as fascinating further findings from the Austen’s fertile imagination which deserve to be celebrated and which are guaranteed to be of interest to all true fans of her work.
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Published by Penguin UK on July 31st 2003
Genres: Fiction, Classics, Short Stories (single author)
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