You may have heard on the news that a fragment of an unfinished Jane Austen novel called The Watsons hit the auction block this past week – a few yellowed pages of hand-written manuscript, complete with cross-outs and corrections selling at Sotheby’s for 1.6 million dollars.
There’s been speculation as to why Austen set the story aside and never finished it. The leading theory is that she found it too painful to continue working on after her father died, the fictional plot too closely paralleling real life events. Could be, but the true explanation might be nothing more serious than that she never had time, she lost interest in the book, or she found her other projects more engrossing.
I’ve never heard an author of multiple novels say that s/he only thinks of one story at a time, finishing the book before even considering what s/he might write next. Usually they speak in terms of their brains “teeming” with story ideas or some new tale running amok in their heads when they should be focused on their current project. “So many stories to tell; so little time.”
At this point, I have three completed novels. But if I died today and, only then, were they discovered to be works of pure genius, somebody would undoubtedly mine my computer for anything else that should be preserved for posterity. There they would find three other “unfinished fragments” tucked away, and wonder why I abandoned them. The answer is simply that I haven’t gotten to them yet. If a new idea comes to me while I’m in the middle of something else, I can’t resist dashing a bit of it down for future reference (see Germ of a Novel). I may or may not ever get back to it.
If Jane Austen had lived beyond the age of 41, she might have finished The Watsons (and another fragment known as Sanditon). Or instead, she might have gone on to write something else entirely. The tragedy is not the unfinished fragments, but the life cut short and the fact she didn’t live to reap the benefits of her posthumous success. For her masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, she received 110 pounds in 1812. Even adjusting for inflation, it’s a pittance and a far cry from the million pounds The Watsons fragment fetched for her heirs two hundred years later.
Of course, maybe she would have been uncomfortable with great wealth if it had come her way. Here’s her own words on the subject taken from the Watsons (which I borrowed to use in the prologue of For Myself Alone).
“A pretty piece of work your Aunt Turner has made of it! By heaven! A woman should never be trusted with money.” On the other hand, she also wrote, “A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.” (Mansfield Park, chapter 22)