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A Calendar for and the Characters and Story of The Watsons

There is no consensus about the date of composition. There has been but one brief attempt to say what year it is supposed to take place in. Here is a summary of what has been said, and an argument on behalf of an 1801 calendar and another "gradual performance".

Both R. W. Chapman and B. Southam write that the extant version of The Watsons, which remains unnamed in the manuscript, is written on paper with a watermark of 1803. That does not mean that Austen necessarily wrote the book in 1803; it means she could not have copied it out any earlier onto this particular set of papers. We are given one date in this book -- and again it is a Tuesday. The book opens with the date of the dance as on a Tuesday, October 13th. During Jane Austen's lifetime between 1792 and 1803 October 13th fell on a Tuesday in 1795 and in 1801; after 1803 October 13th fell on a Tuesday in 1807 and 1812.

According to Edith Brown (daughter of John Hubback who was a son of Catherine Hubback, Frank's fourth daughter, and co-author with her father of JA's Sailor Brothers), the manuscript is a single draft written all at once in 1807 and then abandoned: she relies on the Tuesday October 13th date and her idea that Osborne Castle is modelled on Stoneleigh Abbey which Austen visited in 1806. According to Fanny Lefroy (a granddaughter of Austen's eldest brother, James, and a daughter of Anne Austen Lefroy), "Somewhere in 1804 [JA] began 'The Watsons', but her father died early in 1805 [January 27] and it was never finished." Austen was too depressed to continue, especially since her great older woman friend, Mrs Lefroy also died just around then [December 16, 1804]. Fanny does not tell where she got her information: presumably this was her mother's view; it fits the same sentimental moulding of JA we find in James-Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir. Austen-Leigh seems to feel that his aunt Jane began the book sometime while she was in Bath (after she left Steventon), and abandoned it becaues it was about too low class a group of people: she realised the story would have a "tendency to degenerate into vulgarity". R. W. Chapman argues for a 1803 draft and almost immediate abandonment. Southam argues for anther "gradual performance" on 1803 paper which was never returned to after 1808.

Southam's view of the date of composition is closest to the evidence and probabilities, given Austen's other composition methods and her character as revealed in her novels and letters. She reworked the book more than once as she did all her compositions; when she put it down, she may well have meant to return to the book but had too many other manuscripts to work on, and died, as we know, young. This does cohere with Austen-Leigh's view of the dates, leaving out the notion of the book's low class nature. Austen didn't mind writing about people on the Watsons level in S&S and Mansfield Park (the Portsmouth episode); this was after all just the level she lived at as a young girl in Steventon (her father had a small income) and again at Bath, particularly after her father died.

The chronology of the novel is probably 1801, the year the book was probably begun. There is no description of Osborne Castle except in the most underdetermined language of Austen (we are made to feel it's imposing, large, grand) so any theory which depends on saying that in Osborne Castle Austen has alluded to Stoneleigh Abbey depends wholly on imaginary fancies which have no source in Austen's text.

Thirty years ago Mr Edwards danced with Emma's aunt, a fine woman, in the old rooms at Bath (Penguin 117)
Fourteen years ago Emma went to live in Shropshire with her aunt (Penguin 112); at the time she was 5 and Sam was 7; they are thought to look alike (Penguin 116). She now 19 and Sam 21

Fourteen years ago the Watsons settled in Stanton (Penguin 138)

Six Years ago: Tom Musgrave first came into county, and chose and seemed to like Elizabeth. Elizabeth then in love with Purvis; she is betrayed by Penelope and Purvis married someone else (Penguin 108)
For two years: Sam Watson has loved Mary Edwards (Penguin 112)

Mr Turner dead about two years (Penguin 117)

Margaret goes to Robert and Jane Watson @ Croydon to chase Tom Musgrave (Penguin 111)
Just before Emma came home, Penelope left for Chicester "the other day," to chase marriage in the person of rich old Dr Harding (Penguin 110); said it would be "the last time; so too is Margaret gone chasing after Tom Musgrave at Croydon, to her brother and sister, Robert and Jane Watson, 2nd time in one year (Penguin 111)
Tues, Oct 13th:
A Winter Assembly to be held; Osbornes themselves would be there (Penguin 107);

35 minutes getting to Dorking from Stanton (Penguin 114), half an hour more before Mr Edwards joins Emma, Mrs Edwards, and Mary (Penguin 114);

dinner, tea at 7, Tomlinson's carriage goes by at 8, & Mrs Edwards orders her carriage, and in "a very few minutes they are at White Hart (Penguin 118)

Horses from White Hart for 2 carriages at Osborne Castle at 9 (Penguin 115)

After Emma's dance with little Charles and they go to drink tea, it's "eleven o'clock" (Penguin 124); Mr Howard asks her to dance; she flees an overheard request coming from Musgrave, and "in less than five minutes" Mrs Edwards and Mary join her (Penguin 125)

Wed, Oct 14th:
the next morning many visitors at the Edwards (Penguin 128); it's "two o'clock" and still Emma has heard nothing of "her father's chair" (Penguin 129), learns from letter sent by sister through Musgrave that father has gone to "visitation;" the letter was given to Tom Musgrave "by the fair hands of Miss [Elizabeth] Watson only ten minutes ago" (Penguin 129).

Mrs Edwards seeing Emma does not want to take up Musgrave's offer to convey her back home herself, offers invitation "until tomorrow" or their "carriage is quite" at her "service" and Mary will be glad to visit Elizabeth (Penguin 129); she stays only a few minutes as it is dinner hour at Stanton (Penguin 131)

Fri, Oct 16th:
"On the third day after the ball" (Penguin 135), Elizabeth wants to know about Mary Edwards as she has "begun her letter" to Sam, and "Jack Stokes is to call for it tomorrow, for his uncle is going within a mile of Guildford the next day"; "what I am to say to Sam [?]"; Nanny at 5 to 3 brings out knife-case and tray, and despite Elizabeth's injunction, lets Lord Osborne and Musgrave in. They are forced to leave at signs of early dinner; nonetheless, Lord Osborne manages to invite Emma and Elizabeth to come to "Stanton Wood on Wednesday [next week] at nine o'clock" (Penguin 137); Mr Howard does not return with father even though he helped him; Emma wishes he had accompanied Lord Osborne (Penguin 138). When father returns from "visitation he was not pleased by invite: "I have lived here fourteen years without beign noticed by any of the family. It is some foolery ... of Tom Musgrave. I cannot return the visit. -- I would not if I could" (Penguin 138).
Wed, Oct 21st
This would have been the day the hunt was to happen to which Emma and Elizabeth invited, which invitation they had not refused (Penguin 137).
Sat, Oct 24th:
We learn when Robert and Jane Watson come to visit that (see below) that "last Saturday about nine or ten o'clock in the evenng" at Osborne Castle while people were playing cards, Musgrave teased Mr Howard about his dancing ("cheek-glowing") with Emma at the Assembly rooms; that Howard began to tell "how it was" and was (according to Musgrave) slightly insolent to or at least challenged Lord Osborne ("I see you are dying to know. -- Says Howard to Lord Osborne -- " (Penguin 148).
Mon, Oct 26th:
"A week or ten days rolled quietly away," and letter announces return of Margaret with Robert and Jane Watson for 2 or 3 day visit (Penguin 138); the conversation before and then after dinner, Tom Musgrave calls on the way home from London, came out of road to "call for ten minutes" going home to an "eight o'clock dinner" (Penguin 145), seeing party round fire says it doesn't matter if he dines at "nine;" we are told he left London "four hours ago;"

Musgrave pretends to think Margaret gone a "fortnight" but Watsons assert she has been gone " a month" (Penguin 146), and stays for cards for "another quarter of an hour" more; clock strikes "nine" and Mr Watson's gruel called for and Musgrave leaves rather than partake, invited to dinner the next day and says he will come if shooting with Lady [Or is it Lord] Osborne does not stop him (Penguin 148)

Tues, Oct 27th:
"Next morning" Margaret tries to confide her relationship with Musgrave to Emma, odious to Emma(Penguin 149-50)
Wed, Oct 28th:
The day Tom Musgrove never showed (149-50)
Thurs, Oct 29th:
Margaret still poisoning whatever there is of cordiality in the family, Emma Emma prefers remaining upstairs (Penguin 149-150).
Fri, Oct 30th: Emma is invited to go to Croydon, but declines

  • Mr Watson soon to die
  • Emma to become a dependent in the home of brother and sister-in-law, to decline an offer of marriage by Lord Osborne
  • Tension of tale from Lady Osborne's love for Mr Howard, his for Emma, and Emma's marriage to him at close; possible subordinate stories to be of Mary Edwards torn between love for Sam Watson and Captain Hunter; Miss Osborne involved with military men too. Does Margaret play a role in Tom's fate; how does Penelope fit in? Tom would long to marry Miss Osborne who is money and will bring prestige; he could be amused by Miss Fanny Carr


I here also reprint some essay-postings showing how detailed and carefully set up are all the character sketches and the relationships between characters, Emma's history, the houses in oppostion. It has been argued that The Watsons is a first draft; one perusal and comparison of it with some of Austen's scaps or the cancelled chapters of Persuasion, or even her Sanditon, shows what Virginia Woolf and Q. D. Leavis argued in the last century: the genius and magic of Austen's suggestive nuanced texts comes from repeated endless revision and that is precisely what we find in this manuscript fragment of a novel.

February 8, 1998
A Gem Begun 1801 and put aside 1807-8 (I)

I know I am not alone in thinking this little novel is a gem. Far from a mere fragment which is jolty or without depth or unlike Austen's finished books in its movement, I see in it the same concision which can contain aesthetic shape, psychological depth, and suggestive social commentaries which are far-ranging in their implication. The characters are fully-formed and of real interest. Although as with all Austen's novels, they resemble in outward outline other characters we have come across, they are individualized so that we are in different presences once again, and, even more interesting, find ourselves in a milieu Austen only explores once before, that of the fringe person, and I mean fringe, the desperately impoverished genteel. Not impoverished in the manner of the working or agricultural classes, but as Trollope writes, impoverished enough to make life one continual struggle to live in a way one has not got the money or means or connections for. Of course the other place Austen explored this milieu was in the Portsmouth episode in MP.

I said I am not alone in seeing in this brief work a great deal to be explored and of interest and something far more finished than is usually thought--by which I mean this is not the first draft. I should say who else in print agrees with me. Deborah Kaplan (see her chapter on this novel in JA Among Women), Juliet McMaster, Margaret Drabble, Claudia Johnson are names that spring to mind. I particularly recommend an essay by Juliet McMaster called "God Gave Us Our Relations" and the chapter in Kaplan's book JA Among Women.

Several of us have discussed the book, and it is interesting to me how many of us were gripped by the depiction of the struggle between the sisters for men, space, peace, comfort, a struggle which is ugly and raw enough to break through the veneer of surface politeness as we see in the few poignant and bitter comments by Elizabeth on her loss of Purvis (desperate as she is, she says she would not marry another if she didn't feel she must); others talked of the viciousness of the sister-in-law and brother, of the impositions placed on Elizabeth and the preying of Margaret upon her when Margaret is forced to join them. The genuinely ill old man is also worth thinking about. Finally, the lovely scene at the dance and Emma's gracious behavior to a young boy to whose misery adults would normally be utterly indifferent is beautifully achieved.

The autobiographical element is strong too and worth exploring. This was Austen's milieu, not Pemberley and when we have this one might almost say who cares that we have none of her letters from Bath. This is her letter to us from the years at Bath just before and just after her father died.

A Fully Imagined Little Book

James Heldman may be right when he says the mood of this book is "unqualified hopelessness and despair," and it may be this fragment which led Tomalin to think Austen had a severe depression during her time at Bath. But the novel itself shows intense energy, a sharp working out. It's astute, concise, and fully-imagined. We are already dense with a family picture. I read it as harder, Gissing-like, much less idealized than any of her other novels. It holds to the real details of every day life in a way none of her other novels do. It seems to me Austen was headed somewhere else from what she had written in First Impressions, Sense and Sensibility (out of an original Elinor and Marianne) and Susan, a place which she decided not to go to. There are strong elements of similarity in tone as well as situation in Austen's Three Sisters to this as well as in that hard to read abrasive letter in A Collection of Letters where one Lady Greville psychologically abuses one Maria. So she had headed this way before. Why she didn't continue no-one knows.

But she did create a fully-developed world with her usual casts of characters from different families all intertwined in a village setting. She went pretty far. I am here also arguing strongly against the idea this is a rough draft so again as with my calendar I will simply go include all the characters who come into the picture by the time of the visit of the in-laws in order to make my point. Many people have read ahead or the whole piece by now.

First there's the Watsons, and I will be concise, writing as a series of notes since there is so much detail given even in the very few pages we have read already: we have a family poor, no close carriage, who live in a village 3 miles distant from the town; they consist of

  • Older People:
    1. Mr Watson, sickly, a widower, cannot provide, loves cards, a game of whist (Penguin 107, 109);
    2. Emma's aunt, a Miss Watson, perhaps her father's sister, who became a Mrs Turner, widowed 2 years ago, and is now a Mrs O'Brien, said by Elizabeth to have married foolishly (Penguin 117), had she not Emma would have remained an "heiress of eight or nine thousand pounds" (Penguin 142);
    3. Captain O'Brien whom it did not suit that Emma should come to live with him and her aunt in Ireland (Penguin 117), and whose fault it is Emma is driving in that cart with Elizabeth to get at least some "comfortable soup."
  • Sisters and Brothers:
    1. Miss Elizabeth Watson, an eldest sister who had enjoyed balls for ten years (Penguin 107), 9 years older than Emma, so 28 (Penguin 112);
    2. our heroine, 'the youngest sister' Miss Emma Watson who has been brought up by an aunt (Penguin 107), age 19 (Penguin 112), hint she is pretty given by Elizabeth--"I should not be surprised if you were to be thought one of the prettiest girls in the room... a great deal in novelty" (Penguin 108), a brown eye (Penguin 116);
    3. Penelope Watson, a treacherous sister (Penguin 108);
    4. Margaret Watson, yet another sister (Penguin 109), gentle and mild in public, fretful and perverse at home, still chasing Tom Musgrave; persuades herself Musgrave in love with her, "sharp and anxious expression on her face made her beauty in general but little felt" (Penguin 139).
    5. Brothers, also living elsewhere: Sam Watson, another brother, in love with Mary Edwards and fears Captain Hunter preferred (Penguin 112), youngest, said to look like Emma; grey eyes, now 21, long face, wide mouth;
    6. There is also a footman named James.
  • In-Laws Living Elsewhere:
    1. Robert & Jane Watson in Croydon to whom Margaret has gone a second time in a twelvemonth in order to "egg" Tom Musgrave on (Penuin 111); Jane Watson, an only daughter of an attorney to whom Robert had been a clerk, came with "six thousand pounds (Penguin 113) and Robert, an attorney at Croydon (Penguin 139).
    2. Their daughter, Augusta, a little niece at Croydon lied to so as to leave her behind (Penguin 140) since mother could not bear to take her without her maid (for whom there would be no room at Stanton);

To match these we have also the Edwards, people of fortune who live in the town and keep a coach, and they consist of

  • Older People:
    1. Mrs Edwards who has a maid, goes early to have good place by fire (Penguin 111), has 2 satins dresses and new cap from milliner's get her through winter;
    2. Mr Edwards who makes uncivil remark about Mr Sam Watson's profession and complexion and who may lose money at cards, and plays too late at inn for Mrs Edwards's peace of mind (Penguin 116);
    3. And Marriageable Daughter: Mary Edwards, a daughter with taste, an only child with ten thousand pounts, age 22 (Penguin 112).

Looking ahead to the third group of characters we meet at the ball, we have one more large group, the full household of the wealthy Osbornes:

  • Older People:
    1. Lord Osborne (Penguin 119);
    2. Lady Osborne (Penguin 120), nearly 50, very handsome, dignity of rank, but a hypocrite because says she has come early to please little boy; has come late to be paraded over and is preening further by saying she is early;
    3. Sons and Daughters: a son Lord Osborne (Penguin 120), cold, careless, awkward, came because politic to do so, not fond of women's company, and never danced (Penguin 121); a daughter, Miss Osborne who carelessly cut and disappointed the young Charles Blake (Penguin 120), and who is just the type Tom Musgrave is said to want to marry (Penguin 112).
  • Household, friends, semi-dependent not-quite equal relatives, companions and servants,and educated people given "places" by Osbornes on their estate:
    1. Miss Fanny Carr, Miss Osborne's friend (Penguin 120, 131);
    2. Mr Howard, formerly tutor to son, now clergyman in parish in which castle stood (Penguin 120);
    3. Mrs Blake, widow-sister who lived with Mr Howard (Penguin 120), 35-36;
    4. Charles Blake, her fine boy of 10 (Penguin 120), with 2 brothers and sisters, Mr Howard teaches him Latin, has a horse given him by Lord Osborne;

Now note I have not included Thomas Musgrave (a major character) or Purvis or Dr Harding (whom Penelope is after) or Dr Shaw (whom Sam works for) or the Tomlinsons (a banker and family). I suggest we might have met more Musgraves and found out more about Purvis. Dr Harding might be a character like Nancy's doctor in S&S--though Penelope's desperate hunt is not funny in the manner of Nancy's garrulous chatter.

Each of the above characters is set in a house which is carefully situated in a place which is set up in accordance with the same criteria of verisimilitude and realism we find in the other books.

This is not a rough draft. It is not the work of a depressed woman. Bachelard argued long ago that serious creative work demands a mind at peace, in tranquillity, at work intensely. This is what we have here. We have here a little novel as fully developed in all its essentials as the other six. It is just not fleshed out. I take it to be something like Volume I was to be. The original situation and the cruxes are all set; what we are wanting is elaboration and taking things to their conclusion (Volumes II & III).

March 8, 1998
The Watsons: An Epistolary Interlude and Uses of Letters to Come

In all Jane Austen's novels but Emma the heroine travels somewhere. The first two published, P&P and S&S have again and again been analyzed to try to demonstrate their first versions were or might have been epistolary. There is documentary evidence to suggest that S&S definitely was. We have a long epistolary interlude brilliantly worked into the third volume of MP while Fanny is at Portsmouth, Mary in London, and Lady Bertram at the Park. Letters provide important turning points in NA and Persuasion, and the subplot of Emma, the story of Jane Fairfax is a story of a clandestine correspondence and Emma itself uses letters for central turns in the plot.

It is then no surprize that in The Watsons when Mr Watson died, Emma Watson will be taken to live at Croydon with Jane and Robert Watson. It is also no surprize that Elizabeth Watson and she have grown very close. The question is where would Elizabeth go to live because once the two were set up as close intimate congenial confidants and placed in different spots in England, they would have written letters. I see in The Watsons a plan for an epistolary interlude and opportunities for central uses of letters. Let us also recall that Emma's aunt, once a Miss Watson, then a Mrs Turner, and now a Mrs O'Brien, lives in Ireland cares about Emma.


  • Brown, Edith C. "The Date of The Watsons", The Spectator, June 11, 1927, pp. 1016-17.
  • James-Cavan, Kathleen, "Closure and Disclosure: The Significance of Conversation in Jane Austen's The Watsons, Studies in the Novel, 29 (1997), pp. 437-52.
  • Leavis, Q. D., "A Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writings", Scrutiny, 10 (1941-42), pp. 114-142, 272-294; 12 (1944-45), pp. 104-119
  • McMaster, Juliet, "'God Gave Us Our Relations': The Watson Family," Judith Terry, "'Knit Your Own Soul'; or, Finishing Off Jane Austen," James Heldman, "Where Is Jane Austen in The Watsons, John Norris, "Sam Is Only a Surgeon, you know," Mary Margaret Benson, "Excellently Qualified to Shine at a Round Game," Joseph Wiesenfarth"The Watsons as Pretext," all in Persuasions, 8 (1986), 61-109

Jane Austen's house and old cottages, Chawton [photo pre-1949]

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