Sanditon by Jane Austen

Back in 2017, when the world and his dog were celebrating the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, I spent some time with a beautiful and newly released edition of her teenage writings. It was a wonderful read, and as I said at the time, it was many decades since I’d read any Austen. Pleasingly, I’ve just had the option to go from the very start of her oeuvre to the very end, with a lovely new edition of her last work – “Sanditon”, from Oxford World Classics.

Sanditon surrounded by flowers (don’t ask….)

Austen’s life was not a long one, and looking at her biography it’s amazing that she managed to produce the works she did; all of which have made her one of the country’s best-loved authors. However, it seems that she might have been heading off in a different direction with “Sanditon” and who knows what route her work would have taken had she lived longer.

“Sanditon” opens with a dramatic scene of an overturned coach and an injured ankle (or “Ancle” as Austen renders it); fortunately, the travellers, a Mr. and Mrs. Parker, are not seriously hurt and take refuge with a local family, the Heywoods. Mr. Parker is a friendly, talkative man with a bee in his bonnet; that of turning the little fishing village of Sanditon into a place to rival the likes of Brighton and Eastbourne. To this end he’s invested much time and money, along with his business partner, Lady Denham. Parker soon attempts to persuade the Heywoods to visit Sanditon, but as Austen puts it so beautifully, they are “older in Habits than in Age” and never leave their own village. However, seeing a chance for their daughter Charlotte to improve her circumstances, they agree to allow her to accompany the Parkers back to Sanditon.

Here we encounter all manner of characters, each with their own particular agenda; there is, of course, Lady Denham, a grasping woman who obviously married for money and status, and is as mean as they come; her beautiful companion Clara, who seems to have usurped all other potential heirs in her ladyship’s affections; there is Lady Denham’s nephew and niece, Lord Edward Denham and his sister Esther; Mr. Parker’s extended family which consists of two hypochondriac sisters and a lazy brother, all of whom are convinced they have every ailment under the sun; and any number of peripheral characters who would no doubt come much more to the fore had the book been completed.

Jane Austen (via Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike some of her longer books, Austen takes us straight into the action; and in a short fragment of only 73 pages she sets her scene, introduces her characters, paints them beautifully for us to see and sets them on her stage ready to go. She nails her characters quite wonderfully; for example, of Lord Edward, who seems to pay court to every woman around and is obviously being set up to be a romantic fool or a rotter, she says:

The truth was that Sir Edward whom Circumstances had confined very much to one spot had read more sentimental Novels than agreed with him.

And Mr. and Mrs. Parker are conjured brilliantly in just a paragraph:

Upon the whole, Mr. Parker was evidently an amiable family-man, fond of Wife, Children, Brothers and Sisters – and generally kind-hearted; – Liberal, gentlemanlike, easy to please; – of a sanguine turn of mind, with more Imagination than Judgement. And Mrs. Parker was as evidently a gentle, amiable, sweet tempered Woman, the properest wife in the World for a Man of strong Understanding, but 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 Ancle, she remained equally useless.

I had forgotten just how *funny* Austen is – her wonderfully snarky and deadpan descriptions of her characters and their flaws caught me unawares and had me laughing out loud. She’s marvellously droll on the subject of hypochondriacs, malingerers and quack medics; and the two Parker sisters are a riot, with their litany of illnesses and hysterics.

What was equally fascinating was the aspect of the seaside resorts. The excellent introduction by Kathryn Sutherland (who was one of the academics involved in the “Teenage Writings” volume) discusses this, and reminds us that Asten was from pre-Victorian times when women could go in for nude swimming with the help of a bathing machine (entertainingly illustrated on the cover of this edition). Certainly, there was a belief that the seaside could cure every ailment and Mr. Parker seems to believe that:

Nobody could catch cold by the Sea, Nobody wanted appetite by the Sea, Nobody wanted Spirits. Nobody wanted Strength. – They were healing, softing, relaxing – fortifying and bracing – seemingly just as was wanted – sometimes one sometimes the other. – If the Sea breeze failed, the Sea-Bath was the certain corrective; – and where Bathing disagreed, the Sea Breeze alone was evidently designed by Nature for the cure.

“Sanditon” ends after 12 short chapters, and Austen put it aside during an illness; she never returned to the book and died four months later at the age of only 41. There’s a poignancy about all unfinished works of great writers – reading “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” had the same effect – and we can only wonder at what Austen might have done with her characters, and wish her health had been better…

As the supporting material reveals, there have been many attempts to continue and finish “Sanditon”; several of them sound intriguing, but of course we have no real way of knowing what was in Austen’s mind. However, we do have what she wrote, and this is an excellent edition (as OWC books usually are). It’s well put together, with the aforementioned introduction, notes, bibliography, chronology and notes on the text. The book retains Austen’s beautifully eccentric spelling and punctuation, which adds charm to her story, and I found myself falling in love with Austen’s writing once again.

I understand that “Sanditon” is being adapted for TV, screening in the Autumn, and it does seem that Austen’s themes, as well as the behaviour of her characters, are universal. I guess someone will have to come up with a considerable amount of plot development and an ending, and it will be interesting to see what that is. However, in the meantime, this is a lovely way to reacquaint yourself with the writing of the wonderful Jane Austen, and although I’d love to know how she envisaged the direction of her story, I don’t really mind – I just feel happy to have spent some time with the lively and entertaining denizens of “Sanditon”!

NB – notice how I’ve immediately gone off-plan… At least it’s with a woman author! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by Oxford World Classics, for which many thanks!)