Two weeks ago, a 68-page fragment of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, The Watsons, sold at auction for $1.6 million dollars. This might seem rather spendy, especially in these gloomy economic times, but not to those of us who have known the anguish that sets in when you finish the last book of a favorite author. Even that does not compare with the agony of getting deep into such a book, only to be left hanging when it has no end.
Margaret Drabble described The Watsons as “a tantalizing, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels, had she finished it.” Tantalizing indeed. The Watsons starts off deliciously with a neighborhood ball, a description of an agreeable “young man of very good fortune,” and an immediate rivalry among the unmarried Watson sisters. But just as one really gets going—spoiler alert—the words end. In an attempt to ease the pain, I plunged into Austen’s other fragment, Sanditon, only to find I had instead poured salt on the wound. More than disappointment, I felt despair.
I burned myself again with Leaving Cold Sassy, after having raced through Cold Sassy Tree in one sitting. I hadn’t bothered to read the cover blurb explaining that Olive Ann Burns died of cancer while writing it. After a build-up of 15 chapters and some 200 pages, Will Tweedy’s story ended, midstream.
The author’s notes, in these cases, do little to ease the pain. Finding out what happened is not the same as reading the novel. This is most heartbreakingly demonstrated in Irène Némirovsky’s lush masterpiece, Suite Française. Our final vignette is of an ephemeral July afternoon, Némirovsky sitting outside “on [her] blue cardigan in the middle of an ocean of leaves,” writing notes as bees buzz around her. Two days later, the Nazis carted her off to Auschwitz. Her story, and that of the characters with whom she was so preoccupied, abruptly cut off.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I know, at some point, I will reach once more for these works. No pain, no gain.