It's both quite sad and satisfying that I've now read all of Jane Austen's fiction. I've out on reading Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon for years. The last time I read a new-to-me Austen novel was seven years ago, during my junior year of college when I read Persuasion. I had actually been holding out on reading that one because I thought that would finish her off, but was assigned it in one of my English classes. So I was quite happy to learn about these other three works.
Lady Susan is a complete short novel Austen wrote early in life. The Watsons and Sanditon are two fragments of unfinished novels. Together, they represent three phases of her writing styles.
Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, a novel written in letters. That form was quite popular in the eighteenth century, especially with writers such as Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, both of whose works Austen enjoyed. Austen's first drafts of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were also written in this format, but she revised them later on. Which was definitely a good thing. Although Lady Susan is quite enjoyable, it's not up to Austen's normal abilities. Which is completely understandable since it's an early work, and also because the epistolary novel doesn't stand the test of time as well. Although I personally really enjoyed Evelina by Fanny Burney and Pamela by Richardson, they clearly pale in comparison with Austen's other works. They are highly melodramatic and you have to suspend you disbelief at some of the stretches the author's take to make the form work. I remember writing a paper in the same college class where I read Persuasion about Evelina and Pamela and the epistolary novel's by nature unreliable narrators. You have to think, would a young girl really write that much about a guy she likes to her guardian, a reverend? Is Pamela proclaiming her innocence just because she's writing to parents? But in Lady Susan, Austen keeps the melodrama to a minimum and has the characters write more logically, but this ruins some of the fun of that medium. You also don't get as well-rounded characters, and since Austen has such wonderfully developed characters in her other works you feel like something's missing.
I'm not saying all of that to say I didn't enjoy Lady Susan. I did. Lady Susan is a great villainess, and again is a surprising turn for Austen, but in a good way. She's selfish, mistreats her daughter, flirts constantly, pursues married men, and just generally causes chaos. It's quite fun to read about her and the other characters responses to her. But the story is only about 100 pages, so there's not a lot to dig in to.
In The Watsons, you get more of your typical Austen fare. It's very similar in style and tone to her other novels. I couldn't read about Emma Watson without picturing Emma Watson, otherwise known as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies, playing her. Emma was raised away from her family in the hopes of being an heiress, but that doesn't work out and she comes back home to her family, where some of her sisters are battling to get married so as not to become poor spinsters. Emma attends a ball and we're introduced to several young men who may vie for her hand. For just being a fragment, I really enjoyed this piece and wish it had been developed into a finished piece. In the introduction to my edition, they discuss reasons for this and don't land clearly on anything, but do comment on the fact that the similarities to both Emma and Pride and Prejudice may have caused her to stop writing it. Also, it's the only work dating from her time in Bath, and maybe she just didn't have the motivation to finish while there (she seems to have hated Bath and may not have had the creative power to concentrate there), and then she just didn't want to pick it back up years later after going to Chawton. One of the other interesting bits in the intro was a comparison of this fragment to Cranford. Having just finished Cranford, I thought that was interesting and can see that aspect of a small tight-knit community in both and that the overall tone is fairly similar.
Finally, we have Sanditon. Sanditon is the last piece she was working on before she died. Here you can see the progression from her early novels to the later novels such as Persuasion to something else. There's something darker in this fragment than her other novels, much like Persuasion has a different feel to it. But here there's a feeling that everything may not turn out alright. Mr. Parker is trying to turn Sanditon into the place to be, like Bath. There's a feeling that this might not work out so well hanging over the work. There's also a trio of hypochondriacs in the novel, who Charlotte, the main character, can't stand. Austen's own mother was a apparently a bit of a hypochondriac, and since Austen was most likely dealing her while trying to deal with her own very real illness, she chose to get her feelings out on paper.
Another interesting part of Sanditon is the introduction of a sickly, wealthy mulatto girl, Miss Lambe. I was quite surprised by her appearance, and that she is the richest of a group of students who come to visit Sanditon. I think that's a clue that something quite different was going to happen in this novel had Austen been able to finish it. The introduction says that Miss Lambe could have stepped right out of a Charlotte Bronte novel. So, it's interesting to read Austen's progression from mimicking the eighteenth-century styles, to developing her own, to then trying to build on that and keep pushing her limits and try for something that become more popular later in the century, long after her death. One can only imagine what works she could have pleased us with if she hadn't passed away so young.
If you haven't read these works because they aren't polished and two of them aren't even complete, I recommend that if you like Austen to go ahead and give them a try. It's worth it just for a little bit more Austen and to see her growth as an author through the three pieces.