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The original ‘beach read’? :D #JaneAusten #Sanditon @OWC_Oxford

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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!)

Reading – an update… plus that T-word again….

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You might have notice a slight thinning out of reviews recently, and I confess that I’ve slightly been in the doldrums with regards to reading.  Partly I put this down to busyness at work, the change of seasons, the first cold of the winter (and it was a stinker) and tired eyes! But I did approach a revisit to “Crime and Punishment” via the lovely OWC hardback with great anticipation, and was a bit fed up when it went pear-shaped…

I knew I already had two copies of C&P – the original ancient Penguin I read decades ago, translated by David Magarshack, and a more recent Penguin rendered by David McDuff, of which I’d heard good things. I picked up the latter specifically for a re-read, but I couldn’t resist starting the lovely Oxford version, translated by Nicholas Slater Pasternak, and I did indeed get several chapters in…

However, for some reason I found myself struggling to engage. I’m still not sure why, but I ended up putting this version down and picking up the McDuff, and I’m currently sailing through that and absolutely loving it. It obviously has nothing to do with the physical book, because the Oxford is lovely with clear type and nice big white pages; the McDuff Penguin is a larger format and also quite readable but probably less so than the Oxford.

It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I wasn’t gelling with the Oxford, but the best I can say is that it read too smoothly. I expect to anticipate a kind of nervous energy in Dostoevsky, and I didn’t feel that here. McDuff also translated the version of Brothers Karamazov I read, and I found that version resonated with me too. So obviously, as I’m continuing with the version that speaks to me I shall keep on reading the Penguin McDuff – though having two sets of notes and supporting material to refer to is quite a bonus!

I confess I’m a little disappointed that the Oxford version didn’t work for me, though it will no doubt be ideal for other readers. And I’m keen to read one of these lovely books, so maybe I should step out of Russia for a read soon, and try to read one of Austen’s great works during the centenary year of her death.

“Sense and Sensibility” is one of her titles I know I haven’t read – so perhaps that should be a near-future read. Onward and upward! :))))

Jane Austen week at #ShinyNewBooks

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Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the beloved English author, Jane Austen, and Shiny New Books is hosting a week of posts celebrating her life and work.

I spent some happy hours encountering Austen’s juvenilia recently, courtesy of a beautiful review copy from Oxford University Press, and my review is up on Shiny today. Do go and check it out here, and also keep an eye on their posts for the week – there’s bound to be some fascinating reading!

Early signs of genius

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Teenage Writings by Jane Austen

Well, 2017 really *is* turning out to be the year of anniversaries, isn’t it? As well as it being 100 years since the Russian Revolution, I’ve also been covering the work of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who was born in the same year as that Revolution. But I was reminded of the fact that it’s also 200 years since the death of Jane Austen by the arrival of a lovely review copy from Oxford World Classics – a beautiful book collecting together her teenage writings.

It’s been some years since I read anything by Austen – decades, in fact – and I can’t be sure now what I’ve actually read and what I haven’t, although I’m pretty sure on “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion”. So I wondered how I would find these juvenile works by an author who is arguably one of the most famous in the English language and who probably needs no introduction from me!

As always for OWC, the books is put together in a most exemplary fashion. There is an erudite and knowledgeable introduction from Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston, both from St. Anne’s College, Oxford; a chronology of Austen and her works; detailed notes to support the contents of the text, and also notes that deal in detail with textual variations; maps, family continuations of the works, and three volumes of the actual stories (about which more below)! The scholarship which has gone into this book is impressive, making it a very special volume which is ideal for the reader who doesn’t necessarily have much background knowledge of Austen’s history, the era and the context (me!).

One of the hand-made books

Jane Austen was an inveterate reader of novels herself, and absorbed whatever books she could get hold of, high- or low-brow. Her early writings were done not ‘for the drawer’ but to be circulated amongst family and friends, and she collected them together into three mock books, the source of the works here. The earliest date from when she was 11 or 12, and the final pieces from her later teens when she was around 17. The early pieces are understandably shorter but Volume 3 has two substantial pieces, “Evelyn” and “Kitty, or the Bower”, the latter of which is the first opportunity to read the story as she actually wrote it, as it was apparently subject to alteration by family members later on.

If you think of Austen as a purveyor of gentle prose, you might be quite surprised when you read these stories! They take a variety of forms, from short pieces a page or so long, through little playlets to the longer, more dramatic stories in volume 3. The book includes her most famous piece of juvenilia, “Love and Freindship”, and it’s fascinating to see what a sophisticated wit she displays for one so young – this from one of the early pieces, for example:

… I daily became more amiable, & might perhaps by this time have nearly attained perfection, had not my worthy Preceptoress been torn from my arms, e’re I had attained my seventeenth year. I shall never forget her last words. “My dear Kitty, she said, Good night t’ye.” I never saw her afterwards, continued Lady Williams wiping her eyes, she eloped with the Butler the same night.

There’s a surprising amount of boozing going on, with one particular lady in the very early stories regularly drunk and knocking back the alcohol! Love is dramatic and tragic, and there is even a little murder thrown in…

An entertaining diversion comes in the form of “The History of England”, which appears in Volume the Second. Here, Austen turns her talents to relating the stories of the various monarchs of the country. Some warrant only a line or two, but titans such as Henry VIII earn entries of a decent length. I was particularly pleased to note that Austen refuses to believe the propaganda about Richard III declaring that she supposes him “a very respectable Man”. The entries are illustrated by Austen’s elder sister, Cassandra, but unfortunately she’s not able to present an image of Edward V as Jane tells us that “This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.” (Hmm – so perhaps Austen was being a little sarcastic in her views on the latter….)

I’m not enough of an Austen reader or scholar to comment on how strongly these early pieces relate to her later works, but I’m told that many of the themes in the teenage writings appear more subtly in her adult work and certainly I picked up elements of parody. This is an entertaining and enjoyable collection providing a unique glimpse into the world of the young Jane Austen. Is it a work for the general reader? I think so, though it would make more sense to have read some of her adult works before you come to this one. But this is a beautifully presented volume which presents an essential collection of early works by one of our best-loved authors – and it couldn’t have been put together any better!

(Many thanks to Oxford World Classics for kindly providing a review copy)

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