Jane Austen, Sanditon (Unfinished) (#Review)

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonI 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.

Jane Austen
in Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
London: Penguin Books, 1974
ISBN: 9780141907901 (eBook)

20 thoughts on “Jane Austen, Sanditon (Unfinished) (#Review)

  1. A long time since I read Sanditon by JA and a lady, so I don’t remember any of it – and before I wrote reviews I read pretty uncritically.

    Interesting that JA was moving down-class from the lower gentry, and so openly discussing economics and trade.

  2. I have nit read this. It does sound intriguing. It does sound as if Austen was beginning to explore some fascinating ideas. The point about the relationship between artist and art would have been ahead of its time. It was such a loss that she died so young.

  3. The interesting thing for me, in Sanditon, is Austen’s waspishness, and I wonder (not being a scholar of Austen) whether she had always written exactly what she thought, to get things off her chest, and then revised it to make it amusing rather than caustic -but didn’t have time to do that with this one because of her illness.
    Or was it a case of becoming less circumspect as she became middle-aged, like so many older people who just say what they think regardless of people’s feelings?

    • Interesting Lisa – I don’t see this as more waspish than her other works. Can you give an example? Perhaps what I understand by waspish is a bit different to what you are meaning? Or, maybe it’s her waspishness that I like and so I haven’t notice that this is just a bit more of it! I often use the word acerbic for her.

      • I can’t give an example because it’s so long since I read it, but I’ve always felt that there was an underlying generosity of spirit in Austen, even when she pokes fun at her characters. But my recollection of this one is that the acerbic wit was unrelieved.

        • A shame Lisa, because I’d love to know. I don’t really see a major difference, but my group will be looking at it in more detail next month – researching the critics etc – so I’ll try to remember to raise this issue there. Some feel that she was moving into a more Dickensian – social commentary direction in this novel.

          I would say that some of the comments in the novel come from the character Charlotte, not from the author – and we don’t know where Austen was going to go with her, though we assume, from past knowledge of Austen, that Charlotte is intended to be our guide. Charlotte, for example, is critical of the hypochondria of the Parkers but she also sees their good nature.

          I’d love you to look at it again, but I appreciate that this is probably not your area of interest and you have more you’d rather read!

        • Yes, I’m afraid you’re right. I do love Austen, always have, but having read all of them at least twice and some of them three and four times (usually just before the film) I’m not likely to read any of them again.

        • Oh, fair enough. I’ll probably be reading them, on and off, until I die because she is, in a way, a special hobby, if that makes sense – and it is a joy to share something so deeply with other aficionados. Also, she has led us to so many other investigations, literary, cultural, historical.

    • Haha, Theresa, I guess we are different sorts of readers! When I finish books and talk about them weeks or months later, the thing I’ve usually forgotten is their endings. That’s not to say endings don’t interest me – they do and I like to think about what the author means by them – but they don’t seem to be paramount to me. Or, is it common to forget endings?

      Anyhow, I guess with a book like this you go into it knowing that you won’t know the ending so you come to it mentally prepared.

  4. The part in Sanditon where poor Susan’s nerves are shot after having multiple teeth drawn always makes me laugh until I’m feeling as if I’m deranged. I like Jane Austen’s bite (or as you say, acerbic wit) and always feel as if she wants her readers to laugh at someone with her. In my idea of heaven, more of her work would be found and published, and we would find out what happened in Sanditon.

    • Ah, a woman after my own heart Rose. Your idea of heaven is my, and my group’s idea too. Her death is so tragic.

      What about Susan’s 3 hours of leeches. Leeches can take a lot of blood in a short time – would there be anything left of her after that?

  5. I only found your site today, but since the last posting I am sure you are aware that “Sanditon” is being adapted by Andrew Davies as a TV series – with Davies providing the conclusion to the novel. It is due out next Spring in the UK (probably later in Australia and also Canada where I am). It will be interesting to see how Davies handles the rest of the story.

    • Thanks Joan, thanks so much for commenting. Yes my group is aware. One member laughed recently that his ending isn’t hers. Look forward to it, eh? Always interesting to talk about an adaptation, whether we like it or not!

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