In 1803, the year her book Susan (later re-titled Northanger Abbey) was accepted for publication (though it was not actually published), Jane Austen began a new novel. It is known today as The Watsons, but she never completed it. After writing about 17,000 words (without chapter divisions) she gave it up and never returned to it. There are no known reasons for that decision. Perhaps it was because her own father died in early 1805, or possibly she felt the story could never be ‘light, bright, and sparkling’ enough. She clearly liked the name she chose for her heroine, Emma, enough to want to use it ten years later in another novel.
The fragment was first published in 1871 and the choice of title came from Jane Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh.
The story is set in the village of Stanton, in Surrey. The Watsons are a large family, with very little money and the Rev Mr Watson is in failing health. His daughter Emma has been living with relatives for many years, but her aunt’s marriage has brought about Emma’s return to the paternal home. She has to get to know her siblings and attend a local ball and get to know the neighbours.
Cassandra Austen recorded something of the future plan of the novel. Mr Watson would soon die, leaving his daughters dependent on an unpleasant brother, Robert, and his wife. Emma was to receive a proposal from rich Lord Osborne, but decide to marry the clergyman Mr Howard.
There have been several completions of The Watsons, the first by Catherine Hubback, one of Jane Austen’s nieces.