I’m writing about my Penguin edition, which groups these three minor works.
So, you’ve read Pride and Prejudice. Or maybe you decided to quit while you were ahead after watching the BBC mini-series and falling head over heels in love with Colin Firth.
Either way, you’re familiar with the heart-warming romance, the true gentleman triumphing over the scoundrel, and the two deserving daughters of a poor family securing eligible and admirable matches.
A slight twist on the winning marriage-plot formula and you’ve got yourself hours of equal enjoyment in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. And, thanks to the likes of Emma Thompson, probably double that enjoyment in heart-throbbing film and TV adaptations, which keep on coming.
Cut to a scheming, middle-age flirt – adulteress, even – whose charms are exerted on men ten years her junior and whose wrath her meek, loveable, teenage daughter (much closer to the typical Austen heroine) and reluctant in-laws experience the full brunt of. Lady Susan begins to sound much more like an episode of Coronation Street than a Regency period drama. Written around 2 years before Pride and Prejudice but never published in her lifetime, this novella exhibits Austen’s famed wit brilliantly in the letters of its unique, bitchy heroine and those who suffer at the hands of her conniving ways. Familiar with Austen or not, love or hate her major works, this is definitely worth a read.
Some respite is offered by The Watsons, a novel opening abandoned around the time of Austen’s father’s death, which promises all the sighs, snatched glances, love troubles and eventual satisfaction of a good Regency romance. Though less than 20,000 words long, I can’t help almost weeping over Austen’s never continuing with this fragment – Emma Watson had all the signs of an extremely admirable and wonderful heroine who I could have added to my list of literary best friends, a commendable namesake for any Hollywood heroine today.
But Sanditon drops us once more back into unchartered Austen waters with a bang. Far from beginning with a description of the heroine in her infancy, or a humorous conversation between her giddy mother and dry father, this last, unfinished novel opens with a coach accident. With its seaside setting and apparently prudish heroine, this would have been a radically different addition to Austen’s repertoire, had she been well enough to finish it. Its hordes of hypochondriacs are intriguing, considering that when Austen laid down her pen in March 1817 she was already suffering from the illness which would kill her just months later; her celebrated irony has a much more bitter taste here.
Moving from Lady Susan’s short-and-sweet completeness to the truncated brilliance of The Watsons and intriguing new ground of Sanditon was certainly an enjoyable journey, but one can’t help closing this lovely compilation with a hunger for more of the genius of a woman with whom the world was forced to part far too early.
Whilst it would be lovely and topical to claim that this review is in honour of Jane Austen’s bicentenary earlier this year, I’d rather celebrate that she’s been being awesome every day for 200 years already.