Jane Austen’s first Emma was not Miss Woodhouse but Miss Watson, Emma Watson.

“Emma Watson was not more than of the middle height- well made and plump, with an air of healthy vigour. Her skin was very brown, but clear, smooth and glowing; which with a lively eye, a sweet smile, and an open countenance, gave beauty to attract, and expression to make beauty umprove on acquaintance.”

She is the protagonist of the fragment THE WATSONS which Jane started writing in 1803 or a little later, probably encouraged by the acceptance for publication of "Susan". As she liked the name Emma, she evidently felt it would be a pity to abandon it along with the uncompleted tale, and so used it for a different heroine ten years later. The fragment – left untitled by Jane -was first published in 1871 in the Reverend James Edward Austen-Leigh’s "Memoir of Jane Austen", with the title THE WATSONS.


The Watsons are a large and rather unhappy family, living in the Surrey village of Stanton, which is on the outskirts of some small town. The Reverend Mr Watson, the head of the family, is a melancholic impoverished widower, barely able to fulfil his clerical duties and quite unable to exercise any control over his quarrelling unmarried daughters. The eldest son Robert, about 30, has become a money-grubbing attorney and lives in Croydon with his conceited wife and their spoilt daughter, Augusta. The youngest son, Sam, about 22, is a surgeon in Guilford, having just finished his apprenticeship there to Mr Curtis. Still at home is the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, aged 28, and so by contemporary standards verging on middle age. She is worn and weary with the difficulties of running the household on a very small income and always trying to keep the peace between her next two sisters, Penelope and Margaret -26 and 24 – and each becoming steadily more desperate to catch a husband. The Watson daughters are well aware that as soon as their father dies, they will have to leave the parsonage in favour of the next incumbent; without any private income for themselves, marriage is the only hope they have of acquiring their own homes and avoiding a rapid descent into poverty.

The youngest daughter of the family, Emma, now 19, was semi-adopted by a widowed aunt fourteen years ago and has lived with her in Shropshire; but her aunt has suddenly married again and her new husband doesn’t want Emma to go on living with them. She is a very pretty girl and Elizabeth, her elder sister, decides to drive her into the town one afternoon in mid-October, so that she can stay with the Edwards and attend the first assembly ball of the winter season and stand a chance of meeting an appropriate suitor.
The most important guests at the ball are the party from Osborne Castle which consists of the Dowager Lady Osborne, her son the present Lord Osborne, her daughter Miss Osborne, and the daughter’s friend Miss Carr, the Reverend Mr Howard, clergyman of the parish, and Tom Musgrave, a constant flirt, who attaches himself to the Castle party in his capacity of social – climbing. In the past ,
Musgrave amused himself flirting with all three of Emma’s elder sisters in turn, Elizabeth, Margaret and Penelope. Emma dances with Mr Howard and likes him but is annoyed by Lord Osborne’s oafish manners and Tom Musgrave’s impudent persistence in forcing his company to her.
In the days following the ball, Emma’s eldest brother Robert and his wife come to Stanton bringing Margaret with them. Once the novelty of Emma’s acquaintance has worn off, Margaret soon shows herself to be perverse and quarrelsome, and Robert and his wife are also in their different ways unattractive characters from whom Emma will obviously not receive any affection or sympathy. Penelope, the other sister is said to be busy husband-hunting in Chichester, and Sam has his professional obligations keeping him in Guilford. So at this stage of the story neither Emma nor we, the readers, meet these last two members of the family.

This fragment is less than 50 pages in my edition of Jane Austen’s MINOR WORKS (pp. 314 – 362). Like SANDITON it could have become another of Jane’s beloved novels, if she had decided to develop the story but … she did not and what we have is another short but brilliant evidence of her immense talent.
From the second edition (1871) of the Memoir, p.364: “When the author’s sister, Cassandra, showed the manuscript of this work to some of her nieces, she also told them something of the intended story; for with this dear sister – though, I believe , with no one else – Jane seems to have talked freely of any work that she might have in hand. Mr Watson was soon to die; Emma to become dependent for a home on her narrow-minded sister-in- law and brother. She was to decline an offer of marriage from Lord Osborne and much of interest of the tale was to arise from Lady Osborne’s love for Mr Howard, and his counter affection for Emma, whom he was finally to marry”.





Heather G. said...

I've always had a desire to read her minor works but haven't got around to it yet. Thanks for your review. Austen is such an amazing author!

Luciana said...

I've liked "The Watsons" very much! I knew from the beggining it was only a fragment, but it was very sad for me when I finished it 'cause I was already in love with the characters!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful synopsis of this fragment of Jane's work. Thank you for sharing it.

Table Talk said...

I bought the Radio Times for next week yesterday and I see we are about to get another televised version of the actual'Emma' over the weekend. I'm not sure if I shall watch it as 'Emma' is my least favourite Austen but I'll see what Sunday brings and tell you about it if I do.

Maria Grazia said...

@Table Talk
Thank you, Ann. I'd be glad to know what it is like.Of course, I'll try to get the DVD as soon as it is released. I like collecting costume dramas and adaptations of classics.
Have a nice day!

Anonymous said...

What a pitty to be uncompleted ! there is an other one book who has no end, ''catherine''. This emma, had a hard time, i see.

Anonymous said...

I understand why emma has so much self-esteem, her pride with the good meaning has many exscuses. She is pretty,rich, one daughter and she has the admiration of the men, what else to ask for a girl in her age! She lives also in a dreamy place. But she is a good girl after all and she prooves that. She isn;t vain like mairy crawford( i have mary crawford of the m. park for the ''bad'' girl or Izabella from the abbey) I want so much to talk with you girls for the villains, especially for the '' bad girls'' in austen word because they help us to understand the life more clearly don't they