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book cover - AustenTo conclude this mini Austen project with my thoughts on Sanditon, her final work.

Sanditon

Second only to trench poetry, the British stiff upper lip was never given a more exemplary literary showing than Sanditon, a comedy of hypochondria written in the breeziest tone imaginable by a very sick woman with mere months to live. She began it in January 1817, halted in March and died in July of that year; yet it is a far more polished work than The Watsons, an effortless read and a wildly unpredictable departure from what one thinks of as Austenish. Where leaving The Watsons unfinished is a cause for mild regret, Sanditon is a full-bore literary tragedy, plain and simple.

Sanditon’s ostensible protagonist, Miss Charlotte Heywood, is made an offer to stay with family friends in the newly-established seaside town and health resort of Sanditon, quite a change from her life as a genteel farmer’s daughter. Although clever, compassionate and virtuous, Charlotte is a blank slate in the text, effectively there to observe the comic foibles of her new milieu rather than participate. As her stray observations begin to coalesce and situations to arise, it’s likely that she would have begun to interact in a stronger fashion had Austen been able to continue. As it stands, the book belongs to Sanditon before any specific characters.

Seaside resorts were one of the early forms of modern tourism, a marketable mixture of health and leisure that, when combined with the emerging comforts and easy travel of the rail system, really did build whole new towns (and put a new face on former backwaters like Brighton). So Austen’s satire was actually ahead of the curve, as sea-bathing’s popularity didn’t reach its height until the railways were installed in the 1840s.

Austen was not a landscape writer by nature and her Sanditon lacks the astonishing definition of, say, Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge; her town is explored through the voices of an ensemble cast, a lively chorus that give the town colour and movement. Every character is vividly sketched, and it is sad that we cannot know along what lines they would have developed. The family Charlotte stays with, the Parkers, are given the most focus as a comedic unit. Mr. Parker, family man and Sanditon enthusiast, whose every speech is a brochure and who finds Sanditon hardly less dear – and certainly more engrossing than his wife and children, represents the innocent pleasures and entrapments of forward-thinking modernity. Mr. Parker’s wife is gaily satirized as not of capacity to supply the cooler reflection which her own husband sometimes needed, and so entirely waiting to be guided on every occasion, that whether he were risking his fortune or spraining his ankle, she remained equally useless. She is then basically dismissed from the story.

Mr. Parker’s many siblings are cast in a mostly negative light. Diana and Susan are hypochondriac busybodies tangling the lines of communication as they seek out prospective seagoers, and brother Arthur is caught up in their invalid lifestyle, relishing the comforts of an unsparing fire and regular tea. Some natural delicacy of constitution in fact, with an unfortunate turn for medicine, especially quack medicine, had given them an early tendency at various times, to various disorders; – the rest of their sufferings was from fancy, the love of distinction and the love of the wonderful. – …and there was vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.

Sidney, the last of the siblings, makes only the briefest of cameos at the manuscript’s end, but appears to be the sensible and very good-looking one. Was he to have been the hero of the piece? There’s no reason to suppose Austen was done with romance after six and a quarter books on the subject and certainly Sidney makes a more likely match (even knowing nothing about him) than bedridden Arthur or the amoral popinjay Sir Edward.

The Parker family by themselves are great figures of fun with their genial obsessions and misunderstandings, giving the story much comedic zest, though I doubt they could have carried the completed novel on their own. Luckily, rich intrigue (and a little budding suspense) is supplied by a second set of characters that orbit around the twice-widowed Lady Denham – who had many thousands a year to bequeath, and three distinct sets of people to be courted by. The lovely Clara, companion to Lady Denham, is currently wooed and menaced by Sir Edward, another claimant to the fortune who secretly plans to discredit Clara by any means necessary. Sir Edward is a villain but he’s also easily the funniest character in the book. All of his conversation reads like this: ‘[Robert Burns] was all ardour and truth! – His genius and his susceptibilities might lead him into some aberrations – But who is perfect? – It were hyper-criticism, it were pseudo-philosophy to expect from the soul of high-toned genius, the grovellings of a common mind. – The coruscations of talent, elicited by impassioned feeling in the breast of man, are perhaps incompatible with some of the prosaic decencies of life…’ Charlotte, gaining a little personality at this point, is wholly unimpressed. …why he should talk so much nonsense, unless he could do no better, was un-intelligible. The dry humour of this scene is dependent on Austen’s pragmatic narrative voice; without it, this could be the soliloquy of any Oscar Wilde character.

Then there are the latecomers to the plot: the wealthy and affected young ladies newly arrived for their health. One in particular intrigues, the West Indian heiress Miss Lambe, described by Austen as about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own… This is all we’re given to work with. What was to be her role in the story? Maybe much, maybe little. These dramatic and exotic trappings are worn lightly yet how they entice!

It is not easy to see where Austen was taking this, whether the levity was to be sustained or quietly transformed into a more sobering story. For that matter, would she even have pursued its publication or was she writing it to please and distract herself? My concept of Jane Austen is as a discreet writer yet here the comical pretensions of Sir Edward are seen to mask the sole intent of ruining Clara and he coldly ponders the most efficient way to go about it. Her seduction was quite determined on. Her situation in every way called for it… If she could not be won by affection, he must carry her off. He knew his business. It’s a bit of a stretch to assume Austen was on her way to an Alcott-type thriller, caution thrown to the wind, but it is obvious that the tone speaks more to Lady Susan than to the frigidly dignified Watsons.

On the other hand, since Austen’s working title was The Brothers (Sanditon chosen by her brother as more accurate to the portion we have) it is also possible that all of the above was window-dressing and her plan was to focus upon the lives of men, specifically the vast differences between the generous, overexcited (and reckless?) Mr. Parker, the clever (and perhaps colder?) Sidney and the wholly unmotivated Arthur. The text as it stands also makes heavy use of the industrial revolution as a broader canvas, with consumerism gently ribbed and the story’s overarching tension having nothing to do with the private affairs of its residents and everything to do with the possibility of Sanditon’s success and worry for what should happen if the venture fails. Unless Jane was really on a tear, I suspect a happy ending was in the works but cleverly there are hints scattered throughout the text for both a prosperous bathing resort on the rise and a hubristic speculation that will fail.

As a final note, it is miraculous how a book composed in such tragic circumstances can be so witty, so entirely amusing all the way to the sudden, inevitable silence that leaves you of an instant with a lump in your throat, choked with emotion, wondering at the all too human ability to grieve for a person you never met and at the ability which seems more than human to create, create even as the last window closes.

Jane Austen - Cassandra's Watercolour

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