Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last unfinished novel is in the news. A new TV adaptation and continuation of the same name premiered in the UK on ITV on August 25, 2019. The new eight-part series was written by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice 1995) and will be shown on MASTERPIECE PBS in the US starting on January 20, 2020. Inspired by Jane Austen’s 11-and-a-half-chapter fragment, Davies claimed in an early interview that he used up all of Austen’s text in the first 30 minutes of his screenplay. That was about 24,000 words or about one-quarter of an average-sized fiction novel today. To say I was shocked by this admission is an understatement.
Alas, because it was never completed, Sanditon has not received much attention in comparison to Austen other popular novels: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. I am so pleased that the new TV adaptation has brought it into the limelight. It is one of Austen’s forgotten treasures. I have written previously about it in detail, including an introduction, character list, plot summary, and quotes.
There are few single editions of Sanditon available in print. It is usually lumped in with Austen’s other minor works in a large volume. To remedy that gap, Fentum Press in London has published a stylish new hardcover edition entitled Jane Austen’s Sanditon: with an Essay by Janet Todd. The book has been beautifully designed with interesting and amusing illustrations from Regency-era artists such as Rowlandson, Gillray, and Cruikshank. Its dainty size of 5 ½ inches by 8 inches reminds one of the elegant volumes designed expressly for the comfort of ladies’ delicate hands.
What really brings this edition to the forefront is its editor and introductory essayist Janet Todd. To have such an eminent academic and scholar on Austen and other women’s writing on board really gives the reader the confidence that they are in capable hands. Included with the insightful seventy-page introductory essay is a brief biography of Jane Austen; the complete text transcribed from the original handwritten draft work in progress held in King’s College, Cambridge; endnotes; an essay entitled Anna Lefroy to Andrew Davies: Continuations of Sanditon; further reading; a list of illustrations; and the acknowledgments. In what appears to be a diminutive volume, the reader will be delighted to discover quite the reverse. In addition to the unfinished novel, it is brimming with information and the energy that Austen brought to her final work, perfectly complementing the text.
Sanditon begins with a carriage accident like this scene in Thomas Rowlandson’s illustration, ‘The Runaway Coach’ c. 1791. (13)
In the introductory essay, Todd shares insights into Austen’s declining health and frame of mind when she began writing her novel that would later be titled by her family after her death in 1817 at age forty-one. In a deep decline she “…used her last months to compose a work that mocks energetic hypochondriacs and departs radically from the increasing emphasis on the interior life marking the previous novels.” She was also very concerned about family finances after a recent bankruptcy by her brother Henry Austen which affected the entire family. To offset her real-world troubles clouded by health and finances, she instead wrote a book “about risky investments and comic speculators.” Composing at times in pencil because she was too weak to hold a pen, the last written page of the manuscript ominously starts with the date of March 18th and then trails off to a blank page, “The final date signified that Jane Austen would write no more novels.” For those who cherish every word she has written, this is a sobering moment. The empty pages of the homemade booklet that she composed in signify that “what is not written haunts what is, and no number of continuations by cameras and other pens can quite displace the ghostly presence of that emptiness.” The section continues by describing the “smart, silly and ludicrous characters,” that Austen set in an emerging seaside community. Throughout the essay, Todd balances her descriptions of the characters, scenes, Austen’s thematic choices, plot, and the history of the era with examples from Austen’s other novels, novels of her contemporaries, and from real-life, giving us bearing and breadth.
Mermaids at Brighton, colored etching by William Heath c. 1829 (41)
I have written previously about my impressions of the unfinished novel and you can find my complete review of Sanditon here. It is one of Austen’s hidden gems, brought to a polished, shining glow by this lovely new edition. Todd has written a delightful, insightful, and memorable essay on one of Jane Austen’s lost treasures—a true gift to those who admire her genius and value her writing. Sanditon was a novel that was not meant to be, but we can still cherish what of it we have, and dream of what might have been.
5 out of 5 Stars
Jane Austen’s Sanditon with an Essay by Janet Todd
Fentum Press (2019)
Hardcover & eBook (208) pages
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Cover image courtesy of Fentum Press © 2019; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com