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Oxford’s Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon

If you buy any of this reissue of the Oxford editions of Austen, buy this. It alone makes available three precious texts by Austen not in print for a reasonable price anywhere else. No other recent edition of Austen’s writing does this.

In one inexpensive annotated volume we have four novels by Jane Austen, three of which are today hard to find in such a format: Lady Susan & The Watsons first published in 1871, and Sanditon, first published in 1925 (!) are today only readily available otherwise in Chapman’s Minor Works, Volume VI (1954: rpt. with revisions London: Oxford UP, 1969), last printed in 1988 in hardcover. Its classical scholarly apparatus intimidates, and it lacks explanatory notes meant for the common reader.

The original new Oxford set established by James Kinsley in 1971 followed a tradition stemming from the first posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey in 1818: Kinsley included Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in one volume, but as of 1980, Oxford printed Northanger Abbey with Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. Thus in one accessible volume the buyer obtains:

Northanger Abbey, a novel first drafted 1793-94, written 1798-99, whose revisions (1803 as Susan and 1816 as Catherine) make it at once a palimpsest of Austen’s earliest work and interests, and a text which includes her latest and most sophisticatedly charming writing;

Lady Susan, a brilliant, sexually-frank epistolary novel, the only one of Austen’s to focus on an amoral adulterous heroine, probably first written in 1793-94, around the time Austen is said to have written the first version of Sense and Sensibility, the epistolary Elinor and Marianne, and rewritten between 1804-5 (possibly once again in 1808-9); Lady Susan takes place partly in Bath; 30 years before The Watsons opened Emma Watson’s aunt danced, a fine woman then, in the “old rooms” at Bath with Mr Edwards (the lower rooms, from the 87 NA);

The Watsons, first written and worked hard on from 1804 to 1807, and while still a fragment, a thoroughly-worked or imagined gem which reads as richly and deeply as any of Austen’s finished novels, the only one of her works first written while in Bath and thus reflecting her something of her perspective while there; like Lady Susan, uncensored (as it never was written up for publication) it anticipates Mansfield Park: the scenes of Fanny’s arrival in Portsmouth (Sylvestre Le Tousel, Eryl Maynard, Alison Fisk, as Fanny, her sister and mother, from the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park) could be shots from a film of The Watsons as Emma Watson arrives and is greeted by her sister with an ailing father upstairs;

Sanditon, her very last (1817) stunningly effective early draft of a novel, astonishingly filled with black humor about traumatic illnesses and death (Austen was herself mortally ill and had to put it down as she was dying), a work which is set uniquely in a contemporary unscrupulously commercialized seashore.

Thus the reader may travel through Austen’s writing career, from 1793 to 1817, in 340 pages.

On the new Oxford edition itself: while I find that Claudia Johnson’s essay is accessible and lively, the part dedicated to the three shorter works is flawed. In the 20 pages devoted to discussing Northanger Abbey itself, she takes the recent (and accurate perspective) that far from simply mocking the gothic and replacing it with diurnal reality, whether you regard this as potentially cruel, mean, and risky (especially in the case of General Tilney), or a light account of a young girl’s entrance into real life, Austen recreates the gothic conventions to make an emotionally effective and sensitively felt novel of female development, one which is also an instance of affirmative and psychologically acute female gothic romance. The chosen cover to the book rightly evokes a ruined abbey:

We have three young heroines who know considerable grief and one absent one, now dead (Mrs Tilney) whose life was, we are told, very hard.

By contrast, though, Johnson’s 7 and 1/3 pages devoted to Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon (and most of these to Sanditon) read like an afterthought. Johnson presents Lady Susan (2 pages) as an early work! She appears not to know or does not mention the recent and numerous studies which date it much later; she does not bring in its actual literary predecessors (e.g., Choderlos de LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and blithely ignores the real anguish in the book: Lady Susan bullies and terrifies her daughter; this novel is not a shallow caricatured sketch. It may not have been published because Austen’s family could not allow her to show herself so casually cognizant of adultery.

Johnson’s two pages on The Watsons reveal more readerly knowledge of Austen’s text. She writes eloquently: “It is unquestionably Austen’s bleakest work, taking on such painful subjects as the care of ageing parents, the shame and desolation of downward social mobility, and the mortifications of familial alienation. Raised in conditions of wealth and refinement under the patronage of a loving aunt [who has married unwisely and given herself a tyrant husband], Emma Watson must return home … [her] family is so impoverished that it borders on the ungenteel; her invalid father is querulous; her sisters are unrefined [desperate, voracious, treacherous]; and her brother, who sees sisters as costs, is high-handed and indelicate about her reappearance” (xxix).

Johnson, though, misleads by repeating as unqualified truth theories from the family about why she didn’t finish it, particularly those which imply Austen didn’t like what she had done. The characters in The Watsons are fully-formed and of real interest; one can foresee what will be the intense psychological development and how Austen drew her story regularly from such textures (so by studying this book you study Austen’s technique). Although much resembles in outward outline parts of Austen’s other novels, they are transpositions into another key, individualized so that we are in different presences once again and can study Austen’s underlying geology at the same time. Austen had apparently worked out her ending, and the piece contains a few of her most moving scenes, and a rare one where a woman rescues a young boy at an assembly from mortification.

People seem to want to forget Austen died young. She first secured a stable place to live from which to publish in 1809; she was dead by 1817 and in between she published 4 books and worked up semi-finished versions of 2 more. She may have intended to come back to The Watsons; it was not as far along as the others, begun later. Henry tells us in his invaluable preface to Northanger Abbey (unfortunately not reprinted in this new Oxford) that “some of her [published] novels” were “the gradual performances” of her “previous life” (i.e., when she lived in Steventon and Bath); there’s

no reason to think she would treat The Watsons any differently. She would put it away and take it out again, revise, and then again put it away, until she felt it was time to revise again.

Henry writes: “For though in composition she was equally rapid and correct, yet an invincible distrust of her own judgement induced her to withhold her works from the public, till time and many perusals had satisfied her.”

Kathryn Sutherland has now demonstrated from the manuscripts the extraordinary quality of her books comes from endless revisions.

For Sanditon (3 and 1/3 pages) Johnson repeats Southam’s argument that it is the most finished of the fragments, which (among others) Sutherland shows just won’t stand up to scrutiny; what we have here is a revealing early draft, startling in its feel of rapidity and wild brilliance of invention.

I recommend supplementing Johnson’s introduction: the wise thing to do is find (if the reader can) a used copy of Margaret Drabble’s edition of these works, especially for Sanditon and read her introduction (sensitive, accurate, insightful throughout): Drabble includes a second preface on social background (helpful for The Watsons and Sanditon) what is so astonishing and refreshing in this rich fragment: “What we have here, in fact, is a dying woman treating the subject of illness with amusement and raillery .. the whole tone of the novel is very different from that of its immediate predecessor, Persuasion … the chief focus … is on Sanditon itself, and the spirit of change it represents .. the chief target of her satire [being] speculation, expansion, change and novelty.”

There is a romance brewing, a dangerous one: the impoverished young cousin, Clara Brereton, taken in by the rich domineering, Lady Denham, has apparently been seduced into a risky relationship with a young, dense and amoral young man, Sir Edward Denham, whose admiration for Richardson’s Lovelace, tells us what he intends for Clara. Another love relationship adumbrated is between the book’s apparent heroine, Charlotte Heywood, and a young man expected home, a genial and respected son and brother to the members of the Parker family who dominate the text as we have it.

We cannot ignore textual problems—as three of these books were never printed in Austen’s lifetime and one printed after her death. All were titled by other people.

The circumstances of the chosen text of the edition’s Northanger Abbey resembles that for Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Since there was only one edition in Austen’s lifetime, the first printed edition is our sole authority. It’s a problematic one since it was not Austen herself who wrote out or supervised and proofed the final fair copy of Northanger Abbey. Kinsley followed Chapman’s “normalizing” principles and texts: Austen unchapmaned. There is a clean fair copy of Lady Susan, and differently amended (showing corrections and different considered choices) copies of The Watsons and Sanditon (both lack paragraphing), mostly in Austen’s hand. Davie has a brief note where he says he has has modified the Chapman approach towards the manuscripts in order to make visible Austen’s “intentions” when it comes to “substance”; however, no textual notes are provided.

Well, says the reader, why did they not become better known? Why have they remained relatively obscure? Why has no movie been made of at least The Watsons?

Northanger Abbey shows up in sales charts as the least widely-sold of Austen’s novels. When I checked at Library Thing where about 29,430,000 people catalogue their books (I’m rounding off the figures), I discovered (again in round figures), about 20,750 people had at least one copy of P&P, 10,000 had a copy of Emma; 9,400, one copy at least of S&S; 7,100 one of Persuasion, 5,800 one of Mansfield Park and 4,900 one of Northanger Abbey (see precise figures in review of P&P.) Penguin did not keep the Drabble edition of Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon in print, and Oxford has not kept Doody’s edition of the juvenilia in print.

Basically, the three shorter books have been underestimated, ignored, and misleadingly described. The dual character of Northanger Abbey as a realistic and gothic book is often misread because it is still the case female gothic and novels of female development (especially that of a sexually innocent young women) female gothic are treated as an embarrassment.

To alter this in our present backlash era is an uphill fight. Certainly women should not begin to erase feminist and woman-centered perspectives in what they write—if you fear ridicule or non-publication, erasure only further diminishes the numbers of women in print and journalism (in mainstream publications a tiny percentage compared to men). It doesn’t help to make covers from portraits of nubile upper class young women which signalled at the time “wealth,” and now obsolete (foolish) feminine romance.

Fortunately, the custom of putting pictures of Bath or abbeys and the picturesque on the covers of Northanger Abbey seems to be holding its own, e.g. Elisabeth Mahoney’s Everyman edition of NA alone. Mahoney rivals Butler’s Penguin editions and partly supercedes them by her coverage of non-gothic texts and her reading of the novel not as conservative but progressive and protofeminist. Mahoney’s cover alludes to the work of dreams and romance beyond the gothic while keeping before the reader the picturesque (an important matter in NA, think or see of Catherine, Henry and Eleanor’s long conversation on Beechen Cliff at the close of Volume 1):

Among the excellent editions of NA which do justice to the book as a novel of female growing up and reading (explains them, shows as you read along how what books in NA enrich the book), I recommend Longman cultural edition, and the Norton edited by Susan Fraiman with an appropriate cover: Two Girls Reading by Pablo Picasso (2004)—it’s a novel about reading.

And it’s a novel about Bath. While Chawton and Steventon must take precedence in understanding the formation of Austen’s character and how she was enabled to write, Bath’s centrality in Austen’s adult life comes out strongly in a book which includes NA, Lady Susan and The Watsons.

But I need not go into Bath. Beyond the many books on Bath and Austen and Bath, I recommend In search of 18th century Bath. Nowadays we need no longer depend on publishers for our context in reading a book. We can go to the superb blogs and websites on the net centering on Jane Austen.

For myself I’ve loved Northanger Abbey since I read it between the ages of 17 and 19. I like serious and grave books which is what Mansfield Park and The Watsons are both. I can perhaps best account for my love of NA by my love for Radcliffe (wherein I have Henry Tilney as a model) which I read around age 19 —around the same time I first encountered Fanny Burney in her diaries. I’ve read The Mysteries of Udolpho at least three times through in English, once half-way through in French, and love reading sympathetic critical studies of the gothic where it is a central text.

I own 11 copies of Northanger Abbey, some printed by itself, a couple with Persuasion and two of the Oxfords printed with Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, one excellent Italian translation and two French, one of which is often said to be the best translation of Austen into a European foreign language we have: Catherine Morland by Felix Fenelon. I’ve 4 copies of The Watsons and 5 of Sanditon because beyond the 2 Oxford editions and Drabble’s Penguin, I’ve a copy of Chapman’s Minor Works (valuable for the notes and annotations), and the reprint of Sanditon for Chiron Press, transcribed, edited and with an introduction by Mary Gaither Marshall, with Anna Austen Lefroy’s continuation, the very best scholarly edition of Sanditon in print.

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RRP: £4.99
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed. / edition (17 April 2008)
ISBN-10: 019953554X
ISBN-13: 978-0199535545

Ellen Moody, a Lecturer in English at George Mason University, has compiled the most accurate calendars for Jane Austen’s work, to date. She has created timelines for each of the six novels and the three unfinished novel fragments. She is currently working on a book, The Austen Movies. Visit her website for further Austen related articles.



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