On the 27th of 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 the ability to write 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 leaders of the community: Mr. Parker a local landowner with grand designs to turn a fishing village into a fashionable sea bathing spa for the invalid, 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. There are several young people to add a spark of energy and romance, character foibles galore, plot ironies to raise an eyebrow at business speculation, hypochondria, and a sharp jab at the effluvia of novels and poetry to keep the narrative whizzing along until an abrupt halt just when we are hooked.
Classified as one of Austen’s minor works, Sanditon is Jane Austen’s last uncompleted work. In comparison to her major novels it received little attention until the eponymous television series produced by ITV and PBS began in 2020. Excerpts from it were first published in 1871 in Jane Austen: A Memoir, written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. Even though he had access to the complete manuscript, he believed that “Such an unfinished fragment cannot be presented to the public.” and only included an excerpt from the manuscript. The first complete transcription of the fragment by Austen scholar R. W. Chapman was published by the Oxford Clarendon Press in 1925. It has been reprinted and is available today in many editions of her minor works.
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 my first reading years ago I thought it quite energetic and satirical, similar to the burlesque humor of Northanger Abbey. I then put it aside and did not reflect on it further. My second reading, many years later, brought an entirely new reaction. Austen has taken a new and fresh direction from her usual 3 or 4 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.
© 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, austenprose.com.