Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen (Edited by Margaret Drabble)


Three unfinished stories are included in this collection - "Lady Susan," "The Watsons," and "Sanditon" - plus a lot of additional reading under the titles of "Introduction," "Social Background," "A Note on the Text," "Notes," and "Chronology."

Despite being called the "Introduction," I think that chapter might actually be best read after having finished each of the stories. It certainly sheds light on story lines and characters, but it's hard to follow without knowing who or what is being discussed. I found myself going back to re-read parts of the Introduction while reading each of the stories.

"Social Background" would probably be most appreciated by a reader who has not already read other Jane Austen novels, one who doesn't totally grasp the social context of the time. But if you're not already an ardent Jane Austen fan, then this really isn't the book to be using as your introduction to her work anyway. Still, this chapter is short enough that it's worth reading, and you still might learn a thing or two about Jane Austen's era.

"A Note on the Text" I actually found to be the most interesting bit to read before jumping into the stories. This short chapter tells a little about what kind of editing was needed to get these unfinished stories into a publishable state.

"Notes" may very well have been my favorite part of this book! This chapter of footnotes sheds even more light on Jane Austen's writing. Very frequently, the footnotes tell you that instead of the words you just read, Jane Austen originally wrote different words, but then erased them or crossed them out. It was really fascinating to think about what kind of consideration went into Jane Austen's word choice. Additionally, this section provided interesting information, clarification, and reaction to various parts of the text.

"Chronology" provides a nice overview of major world events that occurred during Jane Austen's lifetime, plus major events in her personal life as well.

As for the stories themselves... "Lady Susan" came first, and it was my least favorite piece. It is an "epistolary novel" - one written as a series of letters among the main characters. It was my first exposure to such a book, and honestly, it just seems like such a constrictive way of telling a story. Maybe in a more traditional novel, the same characters could have been fleshed out to be more complex, but as they were written, many of them were one-dimensional. 

"The Watsons" is most similar to Jane Austen's other well-known works, and it was for me the most satisfying to read. I was pulled in from the very start! I was so interested in the characters and couldn't wait to find out what would happen next - and then completely unexpectedly, I turned a page, and there was no more. It's a shame Jane Austen never finished this book, and it was but small consolation that it was followed by a brief note regarding what Jane Austen intended would happen to the main characters.

"Sanditon," I'm afraid, got off to a very slow start for me. Jane Austen's stories focus primarily on "the young people," and "Sanditon" just took too long in introducing all the young people. I dare say I got bored while waiting for all the key players to arrive at Sanditon, and just when they did, the writing stopped. There seems to be a lot of social commentary in this piece, and having been written just before Jane Austen died, I wonder if that's why there was so much talk of health in this book.

Overall, certainly an interesting read for the most fervent of Jane Austen fans. But if you're not interested in learning a bit more about Jane Austen's works as a whole, then there isn't as much stand-alone entertainment value in this collection as you would find in her finished novels.

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