Today marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The classic novel of marriage and manners introduced to the world two of literature’s most enduring characters: the headstrong, defiant Elizabeth Bennett and the mysterious and alluring Mr. Darcy. “Pride and Prejudice” was Austen’s second major work (after “Sense and Sensibility”) but remains her most popular. In recent years it’s spawned a film starring Keira Knightley as well as two satirical spin-offs: “Death Comes to Pemberley” by P.D. James and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by Seth Grahame-Smith.
But when seemingly everyone (or at least every English lit major) has played fly on the wall at Bennett family dinners or the Netherfield Ball, what else of Austen’s early writing mind is there to discover? Many have looked to her lost novel, “The Watsons,” for insight into her formation as a storyteller. We look at this and other early works—often left unfinished or rejected by publishers—to see what they say about their authors.
Jane Austen Makes It Personal
Austen began writing “The Watsons” in 1803, eight years before her breakout, “Sense and Sensibility,” but never finished it. It’s one of the author’s earliest goes at long fiction but, due to its truncated length—it falls off after five chapters—it was never given deep consideration, until editions began hitting shelves in the 1970s. It’s the story of Emma Watson, a privileged girl raised by a wealthy aunt, who goes to live with her less refined sisters and dying father. Austen’s own father was dying as she wrote book. She abandoned it after his death.
The autobiographical nature of “The Watsons” makes it unique among Austen’s works. While the character of the father’s decline closely parallels Austen’s own father’s trajectory, it’s left to wonder if any other characters—such as the rough-edged siblings—are based on Austen’s own kin, or if the story of an escape to greener pastures might have been an expression of her youthful frustrations.
“The Watsons” is also notable because of the various attempts made to complete it. Austen’s niece, Catherine Hubback, finished where Austen left off and published it as “The Younger Sister” in the mid-1800s. Recently, Joan Aiken released a completed version, “The Watsons and Emma Watson,” in 1996.
José Saramago: A Nobel Laureate’s Rough Beginnings
When Portuguese novelist José Saramago sent out the manuscript of his first novel, “Claraboya,” in 1953, publishers didn’t even bother to send a rejection letter. Crushed by the snub, the 31-year-old Saramago diverted his efforts to journalism for the next 20 years, until he finally broke through as novelist in the early ’70s with “The World and the Other” and “The Traveller’s Baggage.” His career went into high gear from that point on, and in 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize following the publication of “Blindness.”
Later in Saramago’s career, the original publishers he’d sent the manuscript to offered to publish it, but Saramago refused. Now, two years after his death, with his wife Pilar del Rio at the helm of his estate, the long-discarded “Claraboya” is enjoying its much-deserved moment in the spotlight. Random House UK has released the novel in its original Spanish, with an English translation surely in the offing. The novel revolves around the residents of a crowded apartment block in Lisbon, and contains the graphic subject matter and political subversion that characterize his later works.
Hunter S. Thompson: A Barfly’s Baby Steps
“The Rum Diary”
Journalist and career inebriate Hunter S. Thompson wrote a short autobiographical novel, “The Rum Diary,” in the early 1960s, when he was 22. The story concerns a hard-drinking freelance journalist, Paul Kemp, who goes to San Juan, Puerto Rico to work for a tanking newspaper and spends his days doing everything—trashing motel rooms, raiding liquor cabinets, schmoozing socialites—but meeting his deadlines. Thompson himself worked for the San Juan Star in the 1950s, and, taking into account his subsequent literary output (the hallucinogenic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and a significant body of LSD- and cocaine-fueled reportage), there’s little doubt about who the carousing Paul Kemp is based on.
After receiving multiple rejections, Thompson abandoned the novel and turned his attention to the political upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s. He dusted it off in 1998, he told Charlie Rose, because “it had a romantic notion.” The money didn’t hurt, either. “The Rum Diary” was recently adapted into a movie starring Jonny Depp.
Thompson’s very first novel, “Prince Jellyfish,” written a few years earlier, about his time as a copy boy at a small newspaper in the Hudson Valley, still awaits publication.
Arthur Conan Doyle Gets Preachy
“The Narrative of John Smith”
Before leaving an indelible mark on English literature, Arthur Conan Doyle ran a largely unsuccessful medical practice. During unprofitably quiet work hours, he wrote “The Narrative of John Smith,” a contemplative novel about a 50 year-old everyman bedridden with gout. The narrative, as it were, follows Smith’s musings on politics, philosophy and religion. Published for the first time in 2011, “John Smith” reveals Doyle’s acute social conscience, which remains present, but more subdued, in his later work.
Jules Verne’s Angsty Years
“Paris in the Twentieth Century”
Jules Verne is often credited as one of the founding fathers of science fiction, but unmoved publishers rejected one of his early efforts—the moody, semi-autobiographical “Paris in the Twentieth Century”— for seeming too unrealistic. Written in 1863, when Verne was 35, the novel imagines Paris in the year 1960. The main character, Michel, has just graduated with a degree in literature, but finds himself adrift in a society preoccupied exclusively with business and technology. This vision of a world with no regard for finer things didn’t sit well with Parisian editors.
Verne went on to write sci fi touchstones “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” and “Paris” gathered dust for the next 130 years until the author’s great-grandson discovered the manuscript in a safe in 1989. The book was published in 1994.