I recently read and reviewed the delightful Jane Austen’s Sanditon, an excellent new edition in the crowded Austen book market whose timely release, along with the new ITV/PBS eight-part television adaptation/continuation inspired by the unfinished novel, has brought Jane Austen’s last work into the limelight. I have long followed the career of its editor, Janet Todd, and own several of her books, including the soon to be re-issued Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels (February 4, 2020).
For years I have been reading about Janet’s friendship with a mutual Janeite, Diana Birchall, who was also one of my contributors on Jane Austen Made Me Do It. There is so much serendipity in this triangle of friends that I knew that I needed to get Diana and Janet together for an interview regarding her new book.
Diana tells me that she and Janet first met “in 1983, at an early Jane Austen conference at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and chatted away during a lovely side trip to Stoneleigh Abbey.” Okay, I wasn’t there for that one, but wish I had been. “Their conversation continued over the years between visits back and forth to California (Diana’s home) and Cambridge (Janet’s) as well as myriad hiking trips and holidays in places ranging from Rum and Eigg in the Hebrides, the Scilly Isles, Sequoia, and Venice.” Here is the result of their tete-a-tete on Janet’s new book, Jane Austen’s Sanditon, for our enjoyment.
WELCOME TO AUSTENPROSE LADIES
Diana Birchall: You write that in Austen’s works you encounter political and social opinions sometimes gratifyingly liberal, at others sternly alien to our way of thinking. Can you give an example or two?
Janet Todd: The importance of religion. Jane Austen was a rector’s daughter; her eldest brother was a clergyman and the speculating brother Henry took Holy Orders while she was writing Sanditon. Mr Parker seeks a doctor for his resort but makes no mention of a clergyman. I think this is significant.
Like other heroines, Charlotte isn’t overtly pious but she’s firm in ethical judgments. We now praise someone for being ‘passionate’ about what they do, but Charlotte is repeatedly called ‘sober-minded’. She doesn’t admire enthusiasm and activity uncoupled from moral purpose. She can’t approve Robert Burns’ poetry, however appealing, because of his unprincipled life where we forgive celebrities almost any excess.
On the other side Jane Austen often seems modern in her liberal take on feminism and in her subordination of class and birth to merit and integrity.
DB: Do you think Charlotte and Clara are shaping up to be an Emma/Jane Fairfax sort of relationship?
JT: A neat idea but anyone’s guess! Charlotte is the spectator of foibles and absurdities in other people rather than being a person needing to mature through error like Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. Seen primarily through Charlotte’s eyes, Clara is largely unknown, and continuations turn her into either a cunning, devious schemer or a vulnerable girl needing saving from men, possibly by Charlotte. Like Emma with Jane, Charlotte might have misjudged Clara through imposing her imagining on her and be chastened by the truth.
DB: Tom Parker to my mind is one of the most modern characters in Austen, with his entrepreneurial enthusiasm and advertising spirit? Do you think his plans for Sanditon are meant to prosper?
JT: It’s hard not to see some of the resilience of the charming, entrepreneurial and ultimately bankrupt brother Henry in the enthusiastic capitalist and advertiser, Tom Parker. The opening coach upset suggests he’s heading for a fall and the paucity of visitors to Sanditon supports this idea. Yet, I can’t believe he would be entirely confounded or that windswept Sanditon beside the sparkling sea would completely collapse. Jane Austen would probably have provided an ambivalent ‘happy’ outcome, in which institutions and projects depended on the characters of those involved.
DB: It’s interesting you partially identify Austen with Diana Parker, whose deluded energetic do-gooding doesn’t seem like Austen. Do you think Austen is projecting her invalid self into the novel as Diana?
JT: The pair are so close through the mention of bile and biliousness and they share confinement to the sofa. Whether Austen meant more than making brave comedy of her own ailments by giving them to this energetic, busy-bodying spinster who loves the sound of her own voice, we can’t know. As you’ve surmised, I have a soft spot for Diana and think she, like Lady Denham, falls foul (just a little) of Charlotte’s youthfully absolute judgements.
DB: There seems to be no prejudice shown to the half mulatto Miss Lambe, which seems surprising given that slavery, if not the trade, was still rife. Do you think it is a matter of her race being bleached by wealth, as Harriet’s illegitimacy in Emma?
JT: True to some extent, for she is fabulously wealthy and, as a half mulatto, she’d probably have been very fair. Although it created some virulent caricatures of black people during the slavery debates, the Regency period is less universally prejudiced than the later 19th century with its pseudo-science of race.
DB: I like your inference that Sanditon is in style a kind of harking back to the family entertainment of Austen’s juvenilia. Do you think that’s what it was, or do you believe she’d have rewritten and refined to the level of the others, had she lived longer?
JT: Her jolly, burlesquing, comic style surfaces throughout her life in family writings–in letters, funny poems about people and names that amused her, and in ‘Plan of a Novel’, written s year before Sanditon. The seam of broad comedy is always near the surface in Jane Austen. Without earlier manuscripts we can’t know her creative process, but I suspect there was more comedy and literary quotation in all the first drafts than appear in the finished novels. Austen often delights in humorous, loquacious characters like Miss Bates in Emma and Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, but they are given more glorious scope in Sanditon than elsewhere.
Janet Todd and Diana Birchall at The Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California circa 1999
Many thanks for joining us here today ladies. I did not want this conversation to end and hope that you can visit again in the future.
Best known for her work excavating early women writers, Janet Todd has been a nomadic academic for most of her adult life, teaching in Ghana, Puerto Rico, North America, India, England, and Scotland; most recently she’s been president of Lucy Cavendish, a college for women over 21 in Cambridge.
In her trilogy of biographies, Janet looks at Mary Wollstonecraft and her feminist legacy: Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life; Rebel Daughters/ Daughters of Ireland about her pupil, the Irish radical Lady Mount Cashell, and Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle on her daughters, Mary Shelley and Fanny. Two further biographical works concern Austen and Aphra Behn: Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels and Aphra Behn: A Secret Life.
A bout of cancer stirred up the past and the result was: Radiation Diaries: cancer, memory, and fragments of a life in words. Turning out to be a literary as well as physical memoir, inevitably it touched on Janet’s long relationship with Jane Austen–which continues with this edition of Sanditon.
Now outside the academy, Janet writes novels, the first a Jane Austen spin-off, Lady Susan Plays the Game (2013), the second A Man of Genius, set in 19th-century Venice (2016), and the third (forthcoming) Don’t You Know There’s a War On?
Diana Birchall worked for many years at Warner Bros studios as a story analyst, reading novels to see if they would make movies. Reading manuscripts went side by side with a restorative and sanity-preserving life in Jane Austen studies and resulted in her writing Austenesque fiction both as homage and attempted investigation of the secrets of Jane Austen’s style. She is the author of In Defense of Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Elton in America, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, and the new The Bride of Northanger. She has written hundreds of Austenesque short stories and plays, as well as a biography of her novelist grandmother, and has lectured on her books and staged play readings at places as diverse as Hollywood, Brooklyn, Montreal, Chawton House Library, Alaska, and Yale.
Jane Austen’s Sanditon with an Essay by Janet Todd
Fentum Press (2019)
Hardcover & eBook (208) pages
Cover image courtesy of Fentum Press © 2019; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Janet Todd, & Diana Birchall © 2019, Austenprose.com