I first read Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, in the early 1970s, when I was deep into my love of Austen and had to read everything she wrote. This meant reading her two unfinished novels (the other being The Watsons which I’ve written about here twice before) and her Juvenilia, parts of which I’ve also discussed here. A little later I read the Sanditon completion “by Jane Austen and Another Lady” that was published in 1975. Since then I’ve read Sanditon again, but before I started this blog.
Austen started Sanditon in January 1817, and wrote 12 chapters before leaving it in mid-March, presumably because of her ill-health. She died in July of that year. Like The Watsons, it tantalises Austen fans – even moreso in a way, because we have no information about how she planned to finish it. Here’s what we have …
The novel is set in Sanditon, which Mr Parker and his partner, Lady Denman, are developing into a seaside resort. Due to a carriage accident at the novel’s opening, Mr and Mrs Parker stay at the home of the Heywoods in the country some distance from Sanditon. When they return to Sanditon two weeks later, they bring the Heywoods’ eldest unmarried daughter, the 22-year-old Charlotte, with them. Much of the rest of the novel is seen through her eyes as she meets the various residents of, and visitors to, Sanditon. Like all of Austen’s novels, it is set in a small place and focuses on a few families. But, was it moving in new directions?
The book’s subject is the new fascination with health, and the associated belief in the value of sea-bathing. Some of the fragment’s best comedy comes from descriptions of Mr Parker’s two sisters and brother, Susan, Diana and Arthur, and their various ailments, most, if not all, of which seem imaginary. Indeed, sensible Charlotte suspects “a good deal of fancy” in their “extraordinary state of health.” In her opinion, the number of their “disorders and recoveries” that are “so very much out of the common way, seemed more like the amusement of eager minds in want of employment than of actual afflictions and relief”. She suspects most of their sufferings were
from fancy, the love of distinction and the love of the wonderful. – They had charitable hearts and many amiable feelings – but a spirit of restless activity.
They are kind, and well-intentioned, but she feels
there was vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.
Seekers of information about early 19th century health attitudes and practices can learn something from these few chapters.
But there’s more to Sanditon than this health and hypochondria theme, and it relates to money. Of course, money features in Austen’s previous books, but mostly in association with marriage prospects, as it does also in Sanditon. But there’s something new in this novel, something broader about how money operates – about the making of money, and consumerism. Mr Parker’s sisters are actively involved in finding people to go to Sanditon to take advantage of its health benefits. Mr Parker is thrilled to see cottages in the village “smartened up with a white curtain and ‘Lodgings to let’” signs, but Lady Denman is concerned that lodgings are “underlet”. She is therefore pleased to hear about the possibility of more people coming, through the exertions of Mr Parker’s siblings: “That sounds well”, she says. “That will bring money”. These people include West Indians, who are known to have “full purses” and to “spend more freely.” Lady Denman knows, however, that ensuring stable economics is not simple:
But then, they who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief of raising the price of things – and I have heard that’s very much the case with your West-injines – and if they come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of life, we shall not much thank them Mr Parker.’
Before this, just after Mr Parker had enthused about Sanditon, Mr Heywood had said:
‘Yes – I have heard of Sanditon,’ replied Mr Heywood. – ‘Every five years, one hears of some new place or other starting up by the sea, and growing the fashion. – How they can half of them be filled, is the wonder! Where people can be found with money or time to go to them! – Bad things for a country; – sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing – …’
All this suggests Austen was aware of the changes coming to post-war England. What a shame, she didn’t get to show us what she was thinking.
I’m not going to explore this idea further, nor the tantalising appearance in Chapter 12 of “half-mulatto” Miss Lambe, but move on to a couple of delicious “bits”. One that intrigued me this read is a passing reference to something that’s often discussed, now, regarding the degree to which we separate art from the artist where the artist’s values or behaviour contradict our own. In Sanditon, the man we expect to be the villain, Sir Edward, praises poet Robert Burns. However, our sensible commentator Charlotte is more measured:
‘I have read several of Burns’ poems with great delight,’ said Charlotte as soon as she had time to speak, ‘but I am not poetic enough to separate a man’s poetry entirely from his character; – and poor Burns’s known Irregularities, greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines.
If Charlotte is Austen’s mouthpiece and our guide to life in Sanditon, as she seems to be, this could also be Austen’s condemnation – but with so little of the novel finished, I wouldn’t want to say definitively. However, I love that she raises this contentious issue.
Another “bit” I want to share relates to Austen’s awareness of “modern” expressions. Here she is on the introduction of two sister to Sanditon society:
… the Miss Beauforts were soon satisfied with ‘the circle in which they moved in Sanditon’ to use a proper phrase, for everybody must now ‘move in a circle’, – to the prevalence of which rotatory motion, is perhaps to be attributed the giddiness and false steps of many.
This is pure Austen, complete with a sting in the tail.
I’ll finish here by saying that although Sanditon comprises an early draft of just 12 chapters, and we don’t know where Austen was going, there’s much to enjoy in it – and to ponder, particularly regarding her writing direction – if you love Austen’s work.
in Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
London: Penguin Books, 1974
ISBN: 9780141907901 (eBook)