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Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon (Penguin Classics)

Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon (Penguin Classics) - Jane Austen I own editions of these works, but this particular collection is worth having for a reason that will make me sound like a wimp: the two unfinished novels, "The Watsons" and "Sanditon," are finally, blessedly broken up into paragraphs. They only exist in draft form, and previous editors have simply presented the block text Austen left behind. Call me a wuss: I can't read a 30-page paragraph comfortably. Margaret Drabble sympathized with this sentiment and did the work to make these important works readable to a general audience.

That said: My opinion of "The Watsons" isn't much higher now than it was when I first read it years ago and felt horribly guilty about finding it dull. How can so many scholars have speculated with such furrowed brows on the possible deep psychological reasons as to why Austen abandoned this novel? She dropped it for the same reason plenty of writers leave plenty of unfinished drafts behind: it isn't particularly good, and the author was better off spending her time and energy elsewhere.

Until the last few pages, "The Watsons" reads like another early unfinished piece by Austen, "Catharine, or The Bower." Not that the two have any particular plot points in common, but they both feel like imitations of Austen's favorite writer, Fanny Burney. The heroines have no distinct personalities, but rather exist to serve as observers of the foibles and inconsistencies of the characters around them.

Only toward the very end of the draft does "The Watsons" show signs of having been written by a genius. There are sly digs such as this line: "Female economy will do a great deal, my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one." And this character description easily stands the test of the two hundred years that have passed since Austen first jotted it down:

"Robert Watson was an attorney at Croydon, in a good way of business; very well satisfied with himself for the same, and for having married the only daughter of the attorney to whom he had been the clerk, with a fortune of six thousand pounds. --Mrs. Robert was not less pleased with herself for having had that six thousand pounds, and for being now in possession of a very smart house in Croydon, where she gave genteel parties, and wore fine clothes."

"Not less pleased with herself for having had that six thousand pounds" is perfect -- but it doesn't change the fact that the previous dozens of pages consist of such uninspired, conventional prose as:

"A week or ten days rolled quietly away after this visit, before any new bustle arose to interrupt even for half a day, the tranquil and affectionate intercourse of the two sisters, whose mutual regard was increasing with the intimate knowledge of each other which such intercourse produced."

Yes, it's Austen. It's still a yawn.

"Lady Susan," a much earlier work, is far more mature. The characters leap off the page, and even the virtuous ones are not the pictures of perfection Austen despised. Lady Susan herself is brilliant -- a glittering portrait of pure malice.

Drabble, the editor of this particular collection, says that Austen "liked 'Lady Susan' well enough to make a fair copy of it, and not well enough to pursue its publication." That's misleading. Austen revisited this story, coolly harvested it for organs, and brought it to mature perfection in "Mansfield Park." There was no point in "pursuing publication" of this short work once she decided to give the world the same story in the form she preferred: third-person prose, rather than the novel in letters that "Lady Susan" is.

"Sanditon" is the novel Austen was working on when she died at the age of 42. (Yes, her mother and siblings all outlived her by *decades.* Yes, the one child who didn't inherit the family trait of longevity was the sole genius of the bunch. Yes, I'm bitter.) The fact that Austen didn't live long enough to finish this novel, let alone the others she would have written, is matter of intense regret for many reasons that I don't have the heart to detail here.

One that I'd like to point out is that "Sanditon" has a black character -- Austen's first and only. An heiress, no less. She's desirable in the small town the novel's named for because she's young, single, and rich, and described by Austen as "chilly and tender," with "a maid of her own." If Austen had finished this novel, we would have been able to read contemporary reviews responding to this character, whose interest to the *other* characters lies solely in whether she can be persuaded to buy Lady Denham's expensive asses' milk as treatment for her illness. (Unlike almost every other character in this work, Miss Lambe is not a hypochondriac.)

I would very much have liked to see what the public response would have been to Austen including a black character in a novel set in her own Regency England *and not treating that like any kind of big deal.* According to this article (http://www.victoriaspast.com/BlackLinks/blackhst.htm), there were between 20,000 and 40,000 black people living in England at the very beginning of the 19th century. Most of them were very poor. I find it fascinating that Austen decided, as always, to stick to her own social class when it came to her writing, but saw no reason why that shouldn't include a character of color -- and one who *isn't* defined simply by being "the black character." In the few pages Austen lived to complete of this novel, Miss Lambe is presented as one of the few characters who doesn't (literally) buy into the ridiculous extremes of self-medicating that the other characters do. She steadily resists attempts to lure her into spending some of her considerable fortune on costly quackery. She has a lady's maid -- a very expensive servant that only one of Austen's main characters could afford. And that description: "chilly and tender." Where was *that* going to lead this seventeen-year-old? Who *was* Miss Lambe?

Sadly, Austen didn't live long enough to tell us.