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This short story, written in epistolary form about 1792, is one of Jane Austen's Juvenilia. It includes some of the irony characteristic of Jane Austen (for example, the reason why Mary Stanhope is the "happiest creature in the World"), but is perhaps less typical in being a rather brutal work. It harshly exposes the character Mary -- but it seems to me that the blame is not all placed on Mary, and the story implicitly criticizes the social realities which lead a weak personality like Mary's to make the choice that she does. (Somehow it seems appropriate that it is The Three Sisters, of all the Juvenilia, which has been translated into Russian!)
These social realities (which should be kept in mind as background when considering the flaws in Mary's character), are that that marriage was the only route for most "genteel" women to ever get out from under the parental roof, and often the only possible way for a woman to avoid impending quasi-poverty (or ever have more spending money of one's own, a house to be hostess of, a carriage, etc.). See "Marriage and the Alternatives".
Jane Austen didn't believe that women should marry just in order to be "respectably settled" (none of the heroines of her six novels does this, and she herself refused a marriage proposal from a prosperous man); therefore in The Three Sisters, it is Sophy who represents Jane Austen's own views, not Mary. However, Jane Austen also doesn't minimize the pressures on women caused by marriage being the only socially-approved outlet.
It is interesting that Jane Austen probably wrote this rather raw portrayal of "marriage as prostitution" (as Wollstonecraft described marrying for material reasons only) -- the second half of the third letter is basically haggling over the price -- when she was herself seventeen years old, and therefore only just entering onto the marriage market.
MY DEAR FANNY
I am the happiest creature in the World, for I have received an offer of marriage from Mr. Watts. It is the first I have ever had, and I hardly know how to value it enough. How I will triumph over the Duttons! I do not intend to accept it, at least I beleive not, but as I am not quite certain, I gave him an equivocal answer and left him. And now my dear Fanny, I want your Advice whether I should accept his offer or not; but that you may be able to judge of his merits and the situation of affairs, I will give you an account of them. He is quite an old Man, about two and thirty, very plain, so plain that I cannot bear to look at him. He is extremely disagreable and I hate him more than any body else in the world. He has a large fortune and will make great Settlements on me; but then he is very healthy. In short, I do not know what to do. If I refuse him, he as good as told me that he should offer himself to Sophia, and if she refused him, to Georgiana, and I could not bear to have either of them married before me. If I accept him I know I shall be miserable all the rest of my Life, for he is very ill tempered and peevish, extremely jealous, and so stingy that there is no living in the house with him. He told me he should mention the affair to Mama, but I insisted upon it that he did not, for very likely she would make me marry him whether I would or no; however probably he has before now, for he never does anything he is desired to do. I believe I shall have him. It will be such a triumph to be married before Sophy, Georgiana, and the Duttons; And he promised to have a new Carriage on the occasion, but we almost quarrelled about the colour, for I insisted upon its being blue spotted with silver, and he declared it should be a plain Chocolate; and to provoke me more, said it should be just as low as his old one. I won't have him, I declare. He said he should come again tomorrow and take my final answer, so I beleive I must get him while I can. I know the Duttons will envy me and I shall be able to chaperone Sophy and Georgiana to all the Winter Balls. But then, what will be the use of that when very likely he won't let me go myself, for I know he hates dancing, and what he hates himself he has no idea of any other person's liking; and besides he talks a great deal of Women's always staying at home and such stuff. I beleive I shan't have him; I would refuse him at once if I were certain that neither of my Sisters would accept him, and that if they did not, he would not offer to the Duttons. I cannot run such a risk, so, if he will promise to have the Carriage ordered as I like, I will have him; if not he may ride in it by himself for me. I hope you like my determination; I can think of nothing better;
And am your ever Affectionate
I had but just sealed my last letter to you, when my Mother came up and told me she wanted to speak to me on a very particular subject.
"Ah! I know what you mean; (said I) That old fool Mr. Watts has told you all about it, tho' I bid him not. However you shan't force me to have him if I don't like it."
"I am not going to force you, Child, but only want to know what your resolution is with regard to his Proposals, and to insist upon your making up your mind one way or t'other, that if you don't accept him, Sophy may."
"Indeed (replied I hastily) Sophy need not trouble herself, for I shall certainly marry him myself."
"If that is your resolution (said my Mother) why should you be afraid of my forcing your inclinations?"
"Why, because I have not settled whether I shall have him or not."
"You are the strangest Girl in the World, Mary. What you say one moment, you unsay the next. Do tell me once for all, whether you intend to marry Mr. Watts or not."
"Law! Mama, how can I tell you what I don't know myself?"
"Then I desire you will know, and quickly too, for Mr. Watts says he won't be kept in suspense."
"That depends upon me."
"No it does not, for if you do not give him your final answer tomorrow when he drinks Tea with us, he intends to pay his Addresses to Sophy."
"Then I shall tell all the World that he behaved very ill to me."
"What good will that do? Mr. Watts has been too long abused by all the World to mind it now."
"I wish I had a Father or a Brother, because then they should fight him."
"They would be cunning if they did, for Mr. Watts would run away first; and therefore you must and shall resolve either to accept or refuse him before tomorrow evening."
"But why, if I don't have him, must he offer to my Sisters?"
"Why! because he wishes to be allied to the Family, and because they are as pretty as you are."
"But will Sophy marry him, Mama, if he offers to her?"
"Most likely; Why should not she? If, however, she does not choose it, then Georgiana must, for I am determined not to let such an opportunity escape of settling one of my Daughters so advantageously. So make the most of your time, I leave you to settle the Matter with yourself." And then she went away. The only thing I can think of, my dear Fanny, is to ask Sophy and Georgiana whether they would have him were he to make proposals to them, and if they say they would not, I am resolved to refuse him too, for I hate him more than you can imagine. As for the Duttons, if he marries one of them, I shall still have the triumph of having refused him first. So, adeiu my dear Friend --
Yours ever, M. S.
MY DEAR ANNE
Sophy and I have just been practising a little deceit on our eldest Sister, to which we are not perfectly reconciled, and yet the circumstances were such that if any thing will excuse it, they must. Our neighbour Mr. Watts has made proposals to Mary: Proposals which she knew not how to receive, for tho' she has a particular Dislike to him (in which she is not singular), yet she would willingly marry him sooner than risk his offering to Sophy or me, which, in case of a refusal from herself, he told her he should do -- for you must know the poor Girl considers our marrying before her as one of the greatest misfortunes that can possibly befall her, and, to prevent it, would willingly ensure herself everlasting Misery by a Marriage with Mr. Watts. An hour ago she came to us to sound our inclinations respecting the affair, which were to determine hers. A little before she came, my Mother had given us an account of it, telling us that she certainly would not let him go farther than our own family for a Wife. "And therefore (said she) if Mary won't have him, Sophy must; and if Sophy won't, Georgiana shall." Poor Georgiana! -- We neither of us attempted to alter my Mother's resolution, which I am sorry to say is generally more strictly kept, than rationally formed. As soon as she was gone, however, I broke silence to assure Sophy that if Mary should refuse Mr. Watts, I should not expect her to sacrifice her happiness by becoming his Wife from a motive of Generosity to me, which I was afraid her Good nature and sisterly affection might induce her to do.
"Let us flatter ourselves (replied She) that Mary will not refuse him. Yet how can I hope that my Sister may accept a man who cannot make her happy."
"He cannot it is true but his Fortune, his Name, his House, his Carriage will, and I have no doubt but that Mary will marry him; indeed, why should she not? He is not more than two and thirty, a very proper age for a Man to marry at; He is rather plain to be sure, but then what is Beauty in a Man? -- if he has but a genteel figure and a sensible looking Face it is quite sufficient."
"This is all very true, Georgiana, but Mr. Watts's figure is unfortunately extremely vulgar and his Countenance is very heavy."
"And then as to his temper; it has been reckoned bad, but may not the World be deceived in their Judgement of it? There is an open Frankness in his Disposition which becomes a Man. They say he is stingy; We'll call that Prudence. They say he is suspicious. That proceeds from a warmth of Heart always excusable in Youth, and in short, I see no reason why he should not make a very good Husband, or why Mary should not be very happy with him."
Sophy laughed; I continued,
"However whether Mary accepts him or not, I am resolved. My determination is made. I never would marry Mr. Watts, were Beggary the only alternative. So deficient in every respect! Hideous in his person, and without one good Quality to make amends for it. His fortune, to be sure, is good. Yet not so very large! Three thousand a year. What is three thousand a year? It is but six times as much as my Mother's income. It will not tempt me."
"Yet it will be a noble fortune for Mary" said Sophy, laughing again.
"For Mary! Yes indeed, it will give me pleasure to see her in such affluence."
Thus I ran on, to the great Entertainment of my Sister, till Mary came into the room, to appearance in great agitation. She sat down. We made room for her at the fire. She seemed at a loss how to begin, and at last said in some confusion,
"Pray Sophy have you any mind to be married?"
"To be married! None in the least. But why do you ask me? Are you acquainted with any one who means to make me proposals?"
"I -- no, how should I? But mayn't I ask a common question?"
"Not a very common one Mary, surely," (said I). She paused, and after some moments silence went on --
"How should you like to marry Mr. Watts, Sophy?"
I winked at Sophy, and replied for her. "Who is there but must rejoice to marry a man of three thousand a year ?"
"Very true (she replied), That's very true. So you would have him if he would offer, Georgiana, and would you Sophy?"
Sophy did not like the idea of telling a lie and deceiving her Sister; she prevented the first and saved half her conscience by equivocation.
"I should certainly act just as Georgiana would do."
"Well then," said Mary, with triumph in her Eyes, "I have had an offer from Mr. Watts."
We were of course very much surprised; "Oh! do not accept him," said I, "and then perhaps he may have me."
In short, my scheme took, and Mary is resolved to do that to prevent our supposed happiness, which she would not have done to ensure it in reality. Yet after all, my Heart cannot acquit me and Sophy is even more scrupulous. Quiet our Minds, my dear Anne, by writing and telling us you approve our conduct. Consider it well over. Mary will have real pleasure in being a married Woman, and able to chaperone us, which she certainly shall do, for I think myself bound to contribute as much as possible to her happiness in a State I have made her choose. They will probably have a new Carriage, which will be paradise to her, and if we can prevail on Mr. W. to set up his Phaeton, she will be too happy. These things, however, would be no consolation to Sophy or me for domestic Misery. Remember all this, and do not condemn us.
Last night, Mr. Watts by appointment drank tea with us. As soon as his Carriage stopped at the Door, Mary went to the Window.
"Would you beleive it, Sophy (said she) the old Fool wants to have his new Chaise just the colour of the old one, and hung as low too. But it shan't -- I will carry my point. And if he won't let it be as high as the Duttons', and blue spotted with silver, I won't have him. Yes I will too. Here he comes. I know he'll be rude; I know he'll be ill-tempered and won't say one civil thing to me! nor behave at all like a Lover." She then sat down and Mr. Watts entered.
"Ladies, your most obedient." We paid our Compliments and he seated himself.
"Fine weather, Ladies." Then turning to Mary, "Well, Miss Stanhope, I hope you have at last settled the Matter in your own mind; and will be so good as to let me know whether you will condescend to marry me or not."
"I think, Sir (said Mary) You might have asked in a genteeler way than that. I do not know whether I shall have you if you behave so odd."
"Mary!" (said my Mother). "Well, Mama, if he will be so cross..."
"Hush, hush, Mary, you shall not be rude to Mr. Watts."
"Pray Madam, do not lay any restraint on Miss Stanhope by obliging her to be civil. If she does not choose to accept my hand, I can offer it else where, for as I am by no means guided by a particular preference to you above your Sisters, it is equally the same to me which I marry of the three." Was there ever such a Wretch! Sophy reddened with anger and I felt so spiteful!
"Well then (said Mary in a peevish Accent) I will have you if I must."
"I should have thought, Miss Stanhope, that when such Settlements are offered as I have offered to you, there can be no great violence done to the inclinations in accepting of them." Mary mumbled out something, which I who sat close to her could just distinguish to be "What's the use of a great Jointure, if Men live forever?" And then audibly "Remember the pin-money; two hundred a year."
"A hundred and seventy-five, Madam."
"Two hundred indeed, Sir" said my Mother.
"And Remember, I am to have a new Carriage hung as high as the Duttons', and blue spotted with silver; and I shall expect a new saddle horse, a suit of fine lace, and an infinite number of the most valuable Jewels. Diamonds such as never were seen,  and Pearls, Rubies, Emeralds, and Beads out of number. You must set up your Phaeton, which must be cream-coloured with a wreath of silver flowers round it; You must buy 4 of the finest Bays in the Kingdom and you must drive me in it every day. This is not all; You must entirely new furnish your House after my Taste, You must hire two more Footmen to attend me, two Women to wait on me, must always let me do just as I please and make a very good husband."
Here she stopped, I beleive rather out of breath.
"This is all very reasonable, Mr. Watts, for my Daughter to expect."
"And it is very reasonable, Mrs. Stanhope, that your daughter should be disappointed." He was going on, but Mary interrupted him: "You must build me an elegant Greenhouse and stock it with plants. You must let me spend every Winter in Bath, every Spring in Town, Every Summer in taking some Tour, and every Autumn at a Watering Place, and if we are at home the rest of the year (Sophy and I laughed) You must do nothing but give Balls and Masquerades. You must build a room on purpose and a Theatre to act Plays in. The first Play we have shall be Which is the Man, and I will do Lady Bell Bloomer."
"And pray, Miss Stanhope (said Mr. Watts), What am I to expect from you in return for all this."
"Expect? Why, you may expect to have me pleased."
"It would be odd if I did not. Your expectations, Madam, are too high for me, and I must apply to Miss Sophy, who perhaps may not have raised her's so much."
"You are mistaken, Sir, in supposing so, (said Sophy) for tho' they may not be exactly in the same Line, yet my expectations are to the full as high as my Sister's; for I expect my Husband to be good-tempered and Chearful; to consult my Happiness in all his Actions, and to love me with Constancy and Sincerity."
Mr. Watts stared. "These are very odd Ideas, truly, young Lady. You had better discard them before you marry, or you will be obliged to do it afterwards."
My Mother, in the meantime, was lecturing Mary, who was sensible that she had gone too far, and when Mr. Watts was just turning towards me in order, I beleive, to address me, she spoke to him in a voice half humble, half sulky.
"You are mistaken, Mr. Watts, if you think I was in earnest when I said I expected so much. However I must have a new Chaise."
"Yes, Sir, you must allow that Mary has a right to expect that."
"Mrs. Stanhope, I mean and have always meant to have a new one on my Marriage. But it shall be the colour of my present one."
"I think, Mr. Watts, you should pay my Girl the compliment of consulting her Taste on such Matters."
Mr. Watts would not agree to this, and for some time insisted upon its being a Chocolate colour, while Mary was as eager for having it blue with silver Spots. At length, however, Sophy proposed that to please Mr. W. it should be a dark brown, and to please Mary it should be hung rather high and have a silver Border. This was at length agreed to, tho' reluctantly on both sides, as each had intended to carry their point entire. We then proceeded to other Matters, and it was settled that they should be married as soon as the Writings could be completed. Mary was very eager for a Special Licence and Mr. Watts talked of Banns. A common Licence was at last agreed on. Mary is to have all the Family Jewels, which are very inconsiderable, I beleive, and Mr. W. promised to buy her a Saddle horse; but in return, she is not to expect to go to Town or any other public place for these three Years. She is to have neither Greenhouse, Theatre, or Phaeton; to be contented with one Maid without an additional Footman. It engrossed the whole Evening to settle these affairs; Mr. W. supped with us and did not go till twelve. As soon as he was gone, Mary exclaimed "Thank Heaven! he's off at last; how I do hate him!" It was in vain that Mama represented to her the impropriety she was guilty of, in disliking him who was to be her Husband, for she persisted in declaring her aversion to him and hoping she might never see him again. What a Wedding will this be! Adeiu, my dear Anne. Your faithfully Sincere
Mary, eager to have every one know of her approaching Wedding, and more particularly desirous of triumphing, as she called it, over the Duttons, desired us to walk with her this Morning to Stoneham. As we had nothing else to do, we readily agreed, and had as pleasant a walk as we could have with Mary, whose conversation entirely consisted in abusing the Man she is so soon to marry, and in longing for a blue Chaise spotted with Silver. When we reached the Duttons, we found the two Girls in the dressing-room with a very handsome Young Man, who was of course introduced to us. He is the son of Sir Henry Brudenell of Leicestershire --  Mr. Brudenell is the handsomest Man I ever saw in my Life; we are all three very much pleased with him. Mary, who from the moment of our reaching the Dressing-room had been swelling with the knowledge of her own importance, and with the Desire of making it known, could not remain long silent on the Subject after we were seated, and soon addressing herself to Kitty, said,
"Don't you think it will be necessary to have all the Jewels new set?"
"Necessary for what?"
"For What! Why, for my appearance."
"I beg your pardon, but I really do not understand you. What Jewels do you speak of, and where is your appearance to be made?"
"At the next Ball, to be sure, after I am married."
You may imagine their Surprise. They were at first incredulous, but on our joining in the Story, they at last beleived it. "And who is it to?" was of course the first Question. Mary pretended Bashfulness, and answered in Confusion, her Eyes cast down, "to Mr. Watts". This also required Confirmation from us, for that anyone who had the Beauty and fortune (tho' small yet a provision) of Mary would willingly marry Mr. Watts, could by them scarcely be credited. The subject being now fairly introduced, and she found herself the object of every one's attention in company, she lost all her confusion and became perfectly unreserved and communicative.
"I wonder you should never have heard of it before, for in general things of this Nature are very well known in the Neighbourhood."
"I assure you", said Jemima, "I never had the least suspicion of such an affair. Has it been in agitation long?"
"Oh! Yes, ever since Wednesday."
They all smiled, particularly Mr. Brudenell.
"You must know Mr. Watts is very much in love with me, so that it is quite a match of affection on his side."
"Not on his only, I suppose", said Kitty.
"Oh! when there is so much Love on one side, there is no occasion for it on the other. However, I do not much dislike him, tho' he is very plain to be sure."
Mr. Brudenell stared, the Miss Duttons laughed and Sophy and I were heartily ashamed of our Sister. She went on.
This we knew to be false, but the poor Girl was pleased at the idea of persuading the company that such a thing was to be, and I would not deprive her of so harmless an Enjoyment. She continued,
"Mr. Watts is to present me with the family Jewels, which I fancy are very considerable." I could not help whispering Sophy "I fancy not". "These Jewels are what I suppose must be new set before they can be worn. I shall not wear them till the first Ball I go to after my Marriage. If Mrs. Dutton should not go to it, I hope you will let me chaperone you; I shall certainly take Sophy and Georgiana."
"You are very good (said Kitty) and since you are inclined to undertake the Care of young Ladies, I should advise you to prevail on Mrs. Edgecumbe to let you chaprone her six Daughters, which with your two Sisters and ourselves will make your Entrée very respectable."
Kitty made us all smile except Mary, who did not understand her Meaning and coolly said that she should not like to chaperone so many. Sophy and I now endeavoured to change the conversation, but succeeded only for a few Minutes, for Mary took care to bring back their attention to her and her approaching Wedding. I was sorry for my Sister's sake to see that Mr. Brudenell seemed to take pleasure in listening to her account of it, and even encouraged her by his Questions and Remarks, for it was evident that his only Aim was to laugh at her. I am afraid he found her very ridiculous. He kept his Countenance extremely well, yet it was easy to see that it was with difficulty he kept it. At length, however, he seemed fatigued and Disgusted with her ridiculous Conversation, as he turned from her to us, and spoke but little to her for about half an hour before we left Stoneham. As soon as we were out of the House, we all joined in praising the Person and Manners of Mr. Brudenell.
We found Mr. Watts at home.
"So, Miss Stanhope (said he) you see I am come a courting in a true Lover like Manner."
"Well you need not have told me that. I knew why you came very well."
Sophy and I then left the room, imagining of course that we must be in the way, if a Scene of Courtship were to begin. We were surprised at being followed almost immediately by Mary.
"And is your Courting so soon over?" said Sophy.
"Courting! (replied Mary) we have been quarrelling. Watts is such a Fool! I hope I shall never see him again."
"I am afraid you will, (said I) as he dines here today. But what has been your dispute?"
"Why, only because I told him that I had seen a Man much handsomer than he was this Morning, he flew into a great Passion and called me a Vixen, so I only stayed to tell him I thought him a Blackguard and came away."
"Short and sweet; (said Sophy) but pray, Mary, how will this be made up?"
"He ought to ask my pardon; but if he did, I would not forgive him."
"His Submission, then, would not be very useful."
When we were dressed we returned to the Parlour where Mama and Mr. Watts were in close Conversation. It seems that he had been complaining to her of her Daughter's behaviour, and she had persuaded him to think no more of it. He therefore met Mary with all his accustomed Civility, and except one touch at the Phaeton and another at the Greenhouse, the Evening went off with great Harmony and Cordiality. Watts is going to Town to hasten the preparations for the Wedding.
I am your affectionate Freind, G.S.
Notes on The Three Sisters:
Deleted passages in the original manuscript of The Three Sisters: