Last unfinished works by acclaimed novelist have an irresistible attraction. Inevitably someone will want to complete them. Psychologically we all want closure in our own lives as well as our literature. I readily admit when I first read Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last unfinished novel, and came to the last lines in chapter 12, “Poor Mr. Hollis! It was impossible not to feel him hardly used: to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Henry Denham.” I felt a huge pang of regret. Not only were her characters left dangling, so was I. I had not only been robbed of many hours of reading enjoyment, but of my requisite Austen happy ending.
One wonders out loud if the abrupt halt in narrative also affected Another Lady, the anonymous co-author of Sanditon: Jane Austen’s Last Novel Completed, inspiring her to finish the story. When it was first published in condensed format in Redbook Magazine in February 1975 there were very few Jane Austen inspired sequels or continuations in print. It would be another twenty years before the movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice would elevate Austen to pop-culture status and launch a thousand and one sequels. What appears to us today as a logical transition to continue the story of Austen’s beloved characters in paraliterature was in fact quite a bold move for its day. Evidently the author entered this arena with some serious trepidation by not disclosing her true identity and inserting “An Apology from the Collaborator” as an addendum to the novel. At this point, her attempts to forestall reproof had only fueled my suspicions for her possible success.
Written in 1817 during the last six months of Austen’s life, the fragment of Sanditon comprises the first eleven chapters and the beginning of chapter twelve in this continuation. The transition was very smooth, and great care had obviously been taken in choice of language and sentence structure to emulate her predecessor. Set on the Sussex coast the emerging village of Sanditon has pretentions to be a posh sea-side resort. The two minions of the community, Mr. Parker an entrepreneurial landowner and his wealthy and parsimonious partner Lady Denham dominate its development and social life. The story unfolds from the perspective of Charlotte Heywood, a young lady visiting Mr. and Mrs. Parker. Sanditon is also 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 completely eccentric believing himself to a romantic character born to seduce women. He has designs upon Lady Denham’s companion Clara Brereton, a poor relation who is maneuvering to be her heir and in direct competition with him for her favor. Also sharing the spotlight are Mr. Parker’s four siblings, three of whom are sad invalids in there own minds. The one bright light of hope in the novel is Mr. Parker’s witty and charming brother Sidney. The guests of the resort also include Mrs. Griffith’s and her three charges, the sickly Mulatto heiress Miss Adela Lambe and the two predatory husband hunting Beaufort sisters. Another Lady continues the plot, setting, themes and characters established by Austen only adding two new characters, Sidney Parkers friends Mr. Canton and Henry Brudenall.
As the story progresses there is a gradual shift in style as the new author takes the reigns stepping beyond Austen’s usual refinement and sharp satire into a more burlesque and theatrical comedy. Many predictable lines of narrative follow: Charlotte is cautious and observant, Sidney outspoken and impetuous, Clara beautiful and kind, Sir Edward flamboyant and deluded, all as Austen established until plot twists, elopements and abductions push this into Georgette Heyer territory of outrageous romantic comedy. This change is not wholly unwelcome because the author keeps closely within the confines of Austen’s language. In addition, there are also many laugh out loud moments to add levity to the tone. The strongest character to drive the narrative is Sidney Parker whose untoward remarks and officious vanity humorously ruffle Charlotte’s overly cautious sensibilities. His teasing and pleasing nature is the closest character I have read to Austen’s Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey in wit and charm. That, is quite a complement! Readers may also feel a strong sense of déjà vu in finding themselves within familiar Austen territory as they discover several allusions to her characters and plots from all of her novels throughout the new narrative. This was my one objection to the new author. Austen did not have to duplicate anything from her previous stories to drive her plots or accent her ironies. Another Lady uses this crutch too freely at times, and I thought it diminished her credibility.
Overall Sanditon: Jane Austen’s Last Novel Completed was a most enjoyable read. After thirty-five years it remains one of the better examples of what to do right with a sequel or continuation and every Janeite and potential Austenesque author should read it. Another Lady might have wanted to “follow Jane Austen’s own early example of anonymity” preferring the protection of a moniker, but it may have actually been a shrewd move to shield herself from the wrath of circa 1975 Janeites who were not yet prepared for Austenmania.
4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Sanditon: by Jane Austen and Another Lady: Jane Austen’s Last Novel Completed
Scribner, New York (Simon & Schuster) (1998)
Trade paperback (320) pages