On the 27th January, 1817 Jane Austen began work on a novel that is now known as Sanditon. It was never completed. Her declining health robbed her of what she dearly loved most, writing, and on the 18th of March 1817 after penning 22,000 words she wrote the last lines of chapter twelve and put down her pen. Four months later at age 41 she would succumb to what is generally believed to have been Addison’s disease.
Set in the emerging seaside village of Sanditon on the Sussex coast we are introduced to a large cast of characters dominated by the two minions of the community: Mr. Parker a local landowner with grand designs of turning a fishing village into a fashionable watering place offering the therapeutic or curative benefits of sea-bathing and his partner Lady Denham, the local great lady who has “a shrewd eye & self satisfying air” and cares little about the community and only her pocketbook.
The story unfolds from the perspective of Charlotte Heywood, a young lady experiencing her first trip away from her family as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Parker. Sanditon is populated by a comical ensemble of residents and visitors who upon Charlotte’s first acquaintance are altogether different than they later appear. Lady Denham’s nephew Sir Edward Denham is handsome, amiable and titled but is prone to long inflated speeches in the most pompous and affected style in an attempt to reinforce his own notion that he is a romantic character born to seduce women “quite in the line of Lovelaces.” (Lovelace refers to the villain Robert Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel Clarissa who rapes and ruins the young heroine.) He has designs upon Lady Denham’s companion Clara Brereton who he shall either woo with affection or carry off. Clara is a poor relation of Lady Denham’s who is maneuvering to be her heir and in direct competition with Sir Edward for her favor.
Also sharing the spotlight is Mr. Parker and his four siblings, three of whom Charlotte is told are sad invalids, but after their arrival talk a great deal about their maladies but exhibit little consequence of their afflictions. Here we see Austen at her comedic height characterizing the foibles of those who attach illness as an identity and hypochondria as their religion. The one bright light of hope in the novel is Mr. Parker’s brother Sidney who we know of only through letters and others descriptions. He may be the only character besides Charlotte who has the potential to set things in balance with his sense of humor and honest opinions. Sadly he is destined to remain the mystery hero of Austen’s oeuvre. Add to that a lineup a nest of plot ironies to raise an eyebrow at business speculation and hypochondria, and a sharp jab at the effluvia of novels and poetry and you have a narrative that whizzes along until an abrupt halt just when we are hooked.
The uncompleted novel is a great loss to literature but also to the characters who after a bright and comical beginning are left with uncertain futures. What does remain is more than a novelty of Austenalia. Sanditon’s levity despite the author’s failing health when it was written is quite remarkable. On first reading I thought it quite energetic and satirical, similar to the burlesque humor of Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I then put it aside and did not reflect on it further. My second reading after several years brought an entirely new reaction. Austen has taken a new and fresh direction from her usual three or four families in a country village and sets her novel not about an individuals struggle but an entire community. Money is still the fuel that powers the plot, but her physical descriptions of the landscape and town are entirely new in her cannon foreshadowing what may have been an evolution in her style. Sanditon is a gem that no Austen enthusiast should miss.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Sandition, by Jane Austen, foreword by Prof. A. C. Graying
Hesperus Press, London (2009)
Trade paperback (85) pages
By the Seaside with Sanditon: Day 6 Giveaway
Enter a chance to win one of three copies of Sanditon, by Jane Austen (Hesperus Press) by leaving a comment stating what intrigues you about Sanditon, or who your favorite character is by midnight PDT Friday, March 26th, 2010. Winners to be announced on Saturday, March 27th. Shipment worldwide, but it might have trouble reaching Antarctica.
On an aside. For any of you that are curious about the backside of a chicken staring at us on the cover, the Hesperus Press publicist offers this revealing insight. “Regarding the cover design for this title – our designers try to avoid clichés and so don’t always go for literal covers, thinking laterally instead. The tone of the image and its colour range suit the book well, and chickens and eggs are often taken as symbols of new life, which links to Sanditon’s plot, being about a new town.”
Upcoming event posts
Day 7 – March 21 Sanditon Continuations
Day 8 – March 22 Event Wrap-up