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The Austen-Curious Reader – “The Mystery” and “The Three Sisters”

By Eden Iazeolla

Hello to all my wonderful Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts!

Between all of pieces we have read in Austen’s Juvenilia so far, I think I have found my favorite in this week’s readings. In my opinion, “The Three Sisters” is the perfect mix of chaotic humorous mischief and sobering commentary on the social scene during the 18th century. Austen wrote her Juvenilia from ages 12 to 18, as she was approaching the legal age to marry. She has many opinions on the social and marriage scene she was observing. Ultimately, these opinions come to fruition in her later works, making them well-respected during the 19th century and beloved during the 21st century. Here is an interesting blog on Jane Austen's later works and their relationship to the legal aspects of marriage.

The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox William Hogarth (British, London 1697-1764) 1729

Just out of curiosity, I would love to hear your favorite piece in Austen’s Juvenilia. If your favorite piece takes place in the second volume, please share as well. It will only make me more excited for what is to come.

Although “The Three Sisters” is my new favorite piece in the Juvenilia, "The Mystery" is still

still a fascinating piece to discuss. Austen begins this piece by dedicating it to her father. In the dedication, she declares that the unfinished piece is “as complete a Mystery as any of its kind.” When I first read this claim, I was confused. How could a mystery be complete if unfinished? However, Austen proves me wrong in her early mastery of genre.

Throughout “The Mystery,” Austen portrays the characters as only having incomplete conversations, never giving anything up to the audience. And the only information we do get is what can be inferred about the character’s personalities based on their names. The name “Old Humbug” typically refers to someone who is an imposter or fraud, making us believe that “Old Humbug” and “Mrs. Humbug” are not who they seem. However, like the broken conversations, this does not give us much detail as to what is happening in the play. So, in terms of Austen’s dedication, I understand what she was getting at. She managed to craft a complete mystery because the whole piece is a mystery. This is because it keeps the audience in the dark the entire time.

Typically, playwrights use dramatic irony to create audience engagment, because the audience knows something that the characters don’t. In “The Mystery,” Austen skillfully turns this device upside down. Instead of the characters being in the dark, the audience is. In one conversation that takes place during the play, Daphne enters the room and says, “my dear Mrs Humbug how d’ye do? Oh! Fanny ‘tis all over,” to which Fanny replies, “is it indeed!” In this short thread, one is already questioning what the “it” that Fanny and Daphne are discussing is, and why it's “over”. Although this trick of Austen’s frustrated me at first, it is quite amusing how she is exaggerating the traditional use of dramatic irony in plays. This experimentation extends to her use of whispering as a means of communication between characters. Typically, stage whispering takes place between one character and the audience. In such a whisper, the audience is let in on knowledge that other characters are not privy to. However, in “The Mystery,” the whispering that takes place between characters purposely excludes the audience. Clever as always, Austen is able craft the perfect mystery without completing it, while mocking proper literary techniques in plays.

Drury Lane Theatre from Microcosm of London , Thomas Rowlandson

Austen carries this sense of play and experiementation into the “The Three Sisters” as well, our theatrical feature for JASP 2022. In this four-letter epistolary novel, she tells the story of a marriage proposal and the events that follow it. She starts her novel off strong when in the first sentence of Mary’s letter to Fanny, she writes, “My dear Fanny I am the happiest creature in the World, for I have just received an offer of marriage from Mr Watts.” However, as we read along, we learn that Mary is not actually happy with her proposal. Rather, the only thing she is happy about is the fact that the marriage could offer her comfort, support, and social status. It makes me laugh, because Mary almost seems like the 18th century version of a gold digger. These gold digger tendencies continue when Mary’s mother enters the negotiations on the engagement. To ensure that Mary gets money from the marriage, Mary’s mother says to Mr Watts, “‘Remember the pin money; two hundred a year.’ ‘A hundred and seventy five Madam,” Mr Watts responds. “‘Two hundred indeed Sir’” said Mary’s mother. Austen is exaggerating a transactional approach to marriage for comic effect. She paints the mother and Mr Watts as haggling for Mary’s payout from the marriage. So, not only is Mary in it for the money, but her mother is as well.

Austen's skills of character development are apparent throughout this “novel.” For instance, Mary is written as a mess of contradictions. “I do not intend to accept [the proposal],” Mary writes, “at least I believe not.” This exact sentiment is expressed numerous times throughout her letter to Fanny. Whether conscious of it or not,

Illustration by Juliet McMaster in her edition of "The Three Sisters"

Austen writes into Mary’s contradictions many of the actual problems the marriage scene posed for young women at the time. Mary claims that one of the reasons she is against the marriage is because Mr Watts is “an old man, about two and thirty, so plain that [she] cannot bear to look at him.” This notion expressed by Mary can point to the lack of love or romanticism that marriage could have during this time. Without professional opportunities, women were pushed into engagements without liking or enjoying the company of their suitor. This focus on the financial aspect of matrimony many times related to the second claim Mary brings up, which is that Mr Watts “has a large fortune and will make great settlements on [her].” Greed was a constant plague on the marriage game. The richer the man, the more willing women were to setting aside their differences.

However, it is in Mary’s last and final point of contemplation that we can see how detrimental the marriage game can be to families, especially those with multiple daughters. Ultimately, Mary decides to marry Mr Watts on the grounds that if she doesn’t, then Mr Watts “should offer himself to Sophy and if she refused him to Georgina, and [she] could not bear to have either of them married before [her].” Through this, we can see how marriage used to pit sister against sister, pressuring each to enter engagements that, as we see through Mary, are not easy to make.

Aside from Mary’s complicated personality, the story of “The Three Sisters” is saturated with irreverent mischief and childish games. This is one of my favorite parts of Austen’s work in “The Three Sisters,” because you can see Austen’s age shine through the text. One of my favorite passages in this text takes place between Georgina and Sophy when they are plotting against their sister. Georgina says to Sophy

"'I never would marry Mr Watts were Beggary the only alternative. So deficient in every respect! […] His fortune to be sure is good. Yet not so very large! Three thousand a year. What is three thousand a year?’ […] ‘Yet it will be a noble fortune for Mary’ said Sophy laughing again.’”

I love the sibling rivalry and banter, reminding me as it does of my own sibling experiences with my brother. Therefore, I want to conclude on this point. I wanted to show you that although Austen’s work may be reflective of some serious matters going on during the 18th century, this has not stopped her humorous and childish mind from peaking through, a mind that never fails at entertaining her audience

Jane Austen Centre

I hope you all are enjoying the book club so far! I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on Austen’s “The Mystery” and “The Three Sisters,” so please feel free to drop them down below in the comments.

We will be pausing the bookclub during the upcoming Holidays. So, our next bookclub will be on January 16th. We will start the new year off with one of Austen’s more famous Juvenilia pieces, “Love and Friendship.”

We will be posting updates and reminders on the book club and all things JASP on our social media. You can find us on Instagram (@janeaustensummer), twitter (@jaustensummer), and Facebook (@janeaustensummerprogram).

Ta – Ta and Happy Holidays!



Two important things happen this week: Austen's Birthday, and the opening of registration for JASP 2023! Stay tuned for more details about how you can join the fun in person, June 15-18, in Chapel Hill!

1 Comment

Thought provoking and exciting work. Thank you for the awesome read. Cant wait for the post holiday work :)

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