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The Watsons: An Abandoned Manuscript by Jane Austen

Welcome back and thank you for returning to JASP’s series dedicated to exploring the abbreviated, abandoned, unfinished, and rough drafts of novels that were written by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Our examination began with an overview of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, The Professor, then briefly detoured into Bronte’s fragmented work entitled Emma. But today, we venture into Jane Austen’s world, full of richly drawn portraits of characters including Miss Emma Watson and Mr. Tom Musgrave. Her manuscript, The Watsons, is the subject of our study today and it is with a heart longing for adventure that we set out to discover this unfinished piece together.

Hello, friends and fellow Janeites.

            It should be noted that this work, The Watsons, was written by Jane Austen in approximately 1803. The piece was then tucked away, never to be finished, and, in some ways, the reader will immediately be able to see signs that this was a rudimentary piece of work for the much beloved author.


            The Watsons opens with a very brief description of the setting—a town near Surrey that is hosting a winter gathering on Tuesday, October 13th. Anticipations run high for the local, country families who are to attend a ball that evening and that is how the reader is introduced to the heroine, Miss Emma Watson. She has recently returned to town after spending fourteen years being brought up by her aunt. Because her father is a rather sickly fellow and her mother died some years before the story began, Emma is being taken to the ball by her older sister, Elizabeth, but is to attend alone. While Emma has many siblings, including Elizabeth, Penelope, Margaret, Sam, and Robert, the other members of the Watson family are engaged in their own ventures at present or, as is Elizabeth’s case, they are needed to stay at home so they can watch over their ailing father.

            Elizabeth, doing her sisterly duty, seeks to bolster Emma’s confidence. She is practically new in town, having just returned from the time she spent with their aunt, and so going to this ball will nearly serve as her first entry into society. So, Elizabeth takes it upon herself to caution her sister appropriately. She must be wary of a man named Tom Musgrave. He pays attention to every new girl who comes to town but is not to be taken seriously. He is flirtatious, but never means for his advances to go very far. Elizabeth then proceeds to warn Emma against confiding in or trusting their own sister, Penelope, too greatly. It seems that Elizabeth was once in love with a man named Purvis and was sure she would be his bride, but her conniving sister, Penelope, ruined that match with her scheming and unscrupulous ways. According to Elizabeth, Penelope wants to be married so much that she cannot stand to see others beat her to the altar. Emma is disconcerted by this information because she barely knows her sister, Penelope. She cannot recall her well and Penelope was not at home when she arrived there. She takes Elizabeth at her word and vows to be cautious when dealing with her sibling…and with Tom Musgrave.

            It is then that Elizabeth makes plain the Watson family’s circumstances. Even though she is still reeling from the loss of her love, Purvis, she knows that she will eventually marry someone. She cannot and does not expect their papa to support her forever. Emma is appalled by such a notion. She is sure it would be the worst thing in the world to marry someone she does not love. As she contemplates all her sister shares with her, she becomes nervous and offers to let Elizabeth go to the ball in her stead. The people in town are already Elizabeth’s friends. She ought to go to the ball, while Emma stays home to tend to their father. That will be the most pleasing situation for everyone. But Elizabeth disagrees. She says even though she is a full nine years older than Emma (who is just nineteen) she does not believe she deserves to hog all the amusements. Emma should have her share of entertainment. And the matter is settled. Emma will go to the ball, but she will be discerning and not trust anyone, even her own family members, exceedingly.

            After making the acquaintance of the Edwardses and going to the ball with them, Emma finds herself having a splendid time. The first two dances are spent in the arms of an officer and when the Osborne family arrives, somehow, she becomes entangled with them as well. While sitting with the Osborne’s, she learns that young Charles, who is but ten years old, is expecting to dance the first two numbers with his cousin, Miss Osborne, but she disappoints him at the last moment by saying she is going to take a turn with Colonel Beresford. Quick to be pleasing, Emma asks young Charles if she might be his partner and all at once, peace prevails again. From thence onward, Emma is well-received by all and complimented by many. Tom Musgrave asks her to dance with him, partially because he is prompted by his friend, Lord Osborne, and she accepts him, but is saved from the task when Mr. Howard takes her hand. When the evening is over and she has retired with the members of the Edwards’ family, she is filled with exuberance and already bemoaning the fact that the evening had to conclude.

            The next morning, neighbors come to call on Mrs. Edwards and Emma is swept up in the excitement of it all. But then, just when she is beginning to wonder when she might go home, Tom Musgrave arrives with a note from Elizabeth. There is some discussion about how Emma should make her way and Tom volunteers to drive her in his carriage. She demurs and that is when Mrs. Edwards volunteers their carriage and sends her daughter, Mary, to accompany young Miss Watson. Emma is relieved at having dodged this interaction with Tom Musgrave. Three days later, Tom and Lord Osborne make an appearance at the Watsons’ residence, coming to call on Emma under the guise of visiting her father. The conversation between herself and Lord Osborne is slightly strained, and she does not absorb the compliment he pays her in coming all that way as any other young lady in the county might.

            Nearly ten nights later, Emma is reacquainted with her sister, Margaret, her brother, Robert, and his wife, Jane. She is not dazzled by any of them, as Margaret appears to be full of schemes, Jane is haughty, and Robert is preoccupied by the fact that their aunt remarried and gave up her fortune without settling even a sixpence on Emma. This conversation Emma has with her brother on the subject is all dreadfully vexing because Emma adores her uncle, aunt, and the man her aunt decided to make her second husband. And she does not begrudge any of them for acting as they saw fit. But Robert approaches the whole matter in what he believes to be a more prudent light. He says it is a pity his sisters have not married yet, for the family could use the money and connections. It is with that in mind that he invites Emma to join him and his wife at their home in Croydon. As the family settles in for a game of cards, there is a visitor who arrives. It is Tom Musgrave and immediately, Margaret is enthralled. She feels he is there because he heard of her arriving back home. Mr. Musgrave is welcomed warmly and invited to join in the games. He does sit with the family for some time, making the card playing quite lively and spirited, but then takes his leave. Before he goes, he is invited to join them again the next night and he takes some pleasure in giving an ambiguous answer. He may stop by again, if he has the time, but they should not depend upon him.

            Mr. Tom Musgrave does not join the party the next evening, even though they prepare for his coming, and that disappoints Margaret greatly. The fragment ends with Emma trying to adapt to her new life at home, with siblings who do not know or have affection for her. But, when she is urged by her brother, his wife, and even her confidant, Elizabeth, to go onward to Croydon, she refuses. She’d much rather stay where she is at present.

Impressions and Overall Thoughts

            Upon first encountering this text, I was quite certain that Tom Musgrave was to—eventually—become a better sort of man, one who was worthy of earning Emma’s love and affections. Upon reading a post-script that was added years after Jane Austen’s passing, it seems that was not her intention at all. There would be an offer of marriage for Emma from Lord Osborne, but she would reject him because she harbored feelings for Mr. Howard. He, meanwhile, would be pursued by Lady Osborne. But, in the end, Mr. Howard and Emma end up married to one another in a happy manner. Knowing all that, the reader is left to wonder what becomes of Tom Musgrave. Is he truly the roguish character Austen painted? A man not to be trusted? Will he disappoint Margaret or even another girl in town? And what of Penelope, the unscrupulous sister who has yet to make an appearance at the family’s home?

            One of the things Jane Austen does masterfully is setting up a story in which the reader can imagine multiple conclusions—right from the very beginning. Characters will filter in and out of focus, but along the way, their tales will intertwine. And so, even though the reader knows that Emma would’ve wound up married to Mr. Howard, one can still wonder what trials she would have endured along the way in finding such bliss.

            The story of the Watsons held a great deal of promise. Emma was a truly kind-hearted character, and it is likely as the tale proceeded, the reader would’ve been treated to seeing her interact with those who were not so genuinely affectionate or good-willed. This would’ve been a gift, indeed. But perhaps Jane Austen left this story as it was because she knew where she wished to end the tale yet was never sure how to get there. Such a thing happens quite often, and it is lucky for readers that this fragment survived and reached publication. Now, readers are free to speculate and wonder what would’ve happened to Miss Emma Watson and how the story might’ve evolved had Austen considered seeing it through to its conclusion.


            Project Gutenberg offers a copy of this text that readers can peruse free of charge. The document is laid out in a user-friendly manner and in doing this, Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscript has become accessible to enthusiasts worldwide.

            The final fragment we will seek to explore in the coming week is Jane Austen’s work entitled, Sanditon. Join us, as we dip our toes into the icy cool sea waters and meet the characters Austen crafted so finely.


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