From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Jane Austen sequels thrive on what ifs. What if Darcy’s first proposal had been delivered in a more gentlemanly manner? What if Willoughby had decided to marry for love instead of money? Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, is a different kind of literary “what if” for her fans. The eleven chapters Austen penned in early 1817 introduce readers to a fictional seaside resort with as promising a set of characters as any of her other novels. As Antony Edmonds notes in the introduction to Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon:
“In spite of the fact that during its composition she was suffering from the painful and debilitating illness that killed her, there is little evidence of any diminution of her powers, and had the book been finished it is likely that it would have been the equal of her six famous novels.” (10)
While other authors have taken up the challenge of completing the unfinished story, Edmonds, a researcher and writer who has published numerous articles about the seaside town of Worthing and its literary associations, reveals the parallels between Jane Austen’s fictional town and the real one on the Sussex coast in England that she visited in 1805. As Edmonds explains, researchers have only recently known for certain that Jane Austen visited Worthing. Her letters mention the possibility of a visit, but no further reference is made of the trip. Confirmation of the visit was found in the diaries and letters of Jane Austen’s niece Fanny Knight. Jane Austen’s Worthing includes excerpts from these documents as well as seventy-five illustrations and maps that provide a detailed view of life in Regency Worthing.
Central to Edmonds’ argument for Worthing being the inspiration for Sanditon are the similarities of the town’s great house, Warwick House, to the fictional Trafalgar House described by Austen as “a light elegant Building, standing in a small Lawn with a very young plantation round it.” Illustrations of Warwick House demonstrate these similarities, as does the general layout of the town. The majority of the illustrations are architectural sketches, watercolors, engravings, and photographs that bring Regency Worthing to life.
The owner of Warwick House was Edward Ogle, an energetic speculator and developer, who likely inspired the character of Mr. Parker. Ogle was active in the management of Worthing and put great effort into attracting “select society” to the new resort. A compelling piece of the Worthing-Sanditon connection is found in a letter from Jane to Cassandra who was staying in London in November 1813:
“Sweet Mr Ogle. I dare say he sees all the Panoramas for nothing, has free-admittance everywhere; he is so delightful! – Now, you need not see anybody else.” (6)
While the passage is “tantalizingly brief,” it does suggest that Jane and her sister were on relaxed and agreeable terms with Ogle and had maintained friendships with him that began with their first acquaintance in 1805 at Worthing.
The scene of this possible first meeting of Austen and Ogle forms one of my favorite passages from the book. Edmonds explains the social importance of libraries in the small resort towns of this era:
“Since well-bred ladies would not have ventured into the town’s inns, the main locations for social interaction were the town’s two libraries, Spooner’s in the Colonnade, almost opposite Stanford’s Cottage, and Stafford’s Marine Library…” (49)
Beside their primary function of lending books, libraries also kept copies of London newspapers, conducted raffles, and often served as post offices. As a bibliophile, I enjoyed the thought of Austen frequenting the local library during her visit, enjoying the good company of “clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation” that Anne Elliot describes in Persuasion.
It appears that competition for well-bred clientele in Worthing was fierce. As the town grew, a rivalry between John Mackoull, the owner of the new Apollo Music and Classical Library, and Edward Ogle, owner of Spooner’s in the Colonnade, turned into an ugly vendetta against Olge by Mackoull, whom the author describes as a “volatile reformed criminal.” Edmonds does not shrink from telling the stories of Worthing residents and visitors that “are very different from the decorous world of Jane Austen’s novels, and fleshes out for us the underbelly of…the ‘select society’ of the time.” (112) These notables include Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and a certain Colonel Berkeley, described as a “louche nobleman and part-time actor with a passion for young actresses.”
I found Jane Austen’s Worthing to be a well balanced and carefully researched work. It is much more than a virtual historical walking tour through an English seaside resort. As the book is based on the author’s original article published in The Jane Austen Society Report for 2010, it does have a scholarly tone that may not appeal to some readers. However, if you enjoyed reading Sanditon, have an interest in architecture or history, or are just curious about some of the less savory aspects of Regency society, I would recommend taking this trip to Worthing.
4 out of 5 Stars
Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon, by Antony Edmonds
Amberley Publishing (2014)
Digital eBook (232) pages
Cover image courtesy of Amberley Publishing © 2014; text Tracy Hickman © 2014, Austenprose.com
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