Book Reviews

Prepare to be teased by Austen’s Sanditon

Sanditon by Jane Austen

How could Jane Austen be so cruel?

Twelve chapters into writing a new novel, she became so ill she had to put the manuscript aside. She died four weeks later leaving the novel unfinished and her readers yearning for more.

When she died on 13 March 1817, Jane Austen had written 23,500 words. Essentially all she managed was an introduction to the characters and the setting of a seaside village called Sanditon and some threads of possible plot lines.

Reading what became known as Sandition, is tantalising, frustrating and exciting in equal measures. Because this is Jane Austen as we have never experienced her before.

As Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland writes in her introduction to the new Oxford World Classics edition:

Only one paragraph in, we know that Sanditon will be unlike any other novel Austen wrote.

Gone are the villages and the stately homes familiar as settings in her previous six completed novels. Gone too is her previous opening gambit of introducing the heroine and her circumstances before moving onto the action.

Instead we begin with a coach accident in a country lane somewhere in Sussex.

The coach passenger, Mr Parker is injured but he and his wife are given shelter by a local family. As a thank you the Parkers invite the eldest daughter Charlotte Heywood to join them at the seaside resort of Sanditon.

A Seaside First

This setting is another first for Jane Austen. Although previous novels had seen characters talk about the seaside (Emma) or visit it for themselves (Persuasion); Sanditon is the first to be wholly located on the coast.

In another departure from past novels, Mr Parker is not your typical aristocratic landowner. He’s a would-be entrepreneur, an energetic man with ambitious plans to cash in on the trend for “seaside cures”. His vision is to turn the unpretentious former fishing village of Sanditon into a fashionable spa resort that will rival Brighton and Eastbourne.

He’s what Jane Austen calls ‘an enthusiast” – a man obsessed by his idea but whose enthusiasm is not equalled by his common sense. 

He could talk of it for ever.—It had indeed the highest claims;—not only those of birth place, property, and home,—it was his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse; his occupation, his hope, and his futurity.

He has, he thinks a soul mate and financial backer in the form of Lady Denham. She’s a canny woman though, not given to spending money unnecessarily. She’s also sharp enough to know when relatives are cosying up to her simply to get a piece of her “many thousands a year to bequeath.”

Sanditon’s Unanswered Questions

By the time Jane Austen writes her final words, the stage is set and the players are in place. Eager beaver Mr Parker, grande dame Lady Denham; Mr Parker’s hypochondriac siblings; Lady Denham’s toadying relatives and the Charlotte Heywood who though young proves to be an astute judge of character.

There’s also an intriguing character of whom we hear but never get to meet. A Miss Lambe described as “a young West Indian of large fortune, in delicate health,” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender.” arrives in Sanditon and is about to take her first sea bathe.

It’s infuriating that we never get to know what happens next. Will Mr Parker’s ambitions come crashing down? Which man will try to get at Miss Lambe’s fortune? Will Lady Denham’s relatives get their comeuppance?

And since this is after all a Jane Austen novel, the burning question is: Who will Charlotte marry?

Certainly not Lady Denham’s idiotic nephew-by-marriage Sir Edward Denham. She’s already dismissed him as a “downright silly,” because of his tastes in reading. Mr Parker’s brother Arthur is similarly unappealing; he just stuffs his face and hugs the fire. So there must be some character yet to make an appearance, who wins her heart.

How this tale pans out has long been a source of speculation. At least seven people have attempted to finish the manuscript, Jane Austen’s niece, Anne Austen Lefroy. But her version was left incomplete.

Picking up Austen’s Baton

There have also been numerous attempts to adapt this for tv/film. The most recent (and the reason why Oxford University Press has issued a new edition) gets its airing in the next few days. You can watch the official trailer here.

It’s a six-episode series written by Andrew Davies (the man responsible for that Colin Firth wet shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice). I’ll be watching though I suspect it will bear little resemblance to Austen’s plans for her novel – Davies has already said that he used up all her material is just half of the first episode. So we can expect his usual inventiveness.

Sanditon by Jane Austen: Fast Facts

The new Oxford World Classics edition is edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of English Literature and Senior Research Fellow, St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her introduction is rich in contextual insight about attitudes to the health benefits of sea-bathing and the rise of economic speculation.

This edition also contains some fascinating information about the editorial decisions reached during preparation for publication. The publishers used a copy of Austen’s manuscript made by her sister Cassandra. It seems, says Sutherland, ‘far from finished”. There are few paragraph divisions and many abbreviations and contractions. Cassandra changed some of the spellings and corrected some obvious errors.

The OUP editors decided to reject Cassandra’s spelling corrections in order to remain more true Austen’s personality as a writer. They also retained her practice of irregular capitalization of common nouns in mid sentence. I’m so glad they did because, though it made the text more challenging to read, I wanted to experience the words as Austen herself wrote them.

If you’re interested in seeing Cassandra’s copy, there are photographic images of the pages here


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

32 thoughts on “Prepare to be teased by Austen’s Sanditon

  • Having watched all eight episodes of Sanditon all I can say is that this is a steamy soap opera that poorly represents Jane’s ideas.

    • You had more staying power than I did – I got to half way through episode 2 and had had enough. There was a lot of talk even before episode 1 aired, about a second series but the audience reaction hasn’t been as enthusiastic as they expected so maybe that won’t go ahead

  • Pingback: From English seaside to Nigerian city: 6 Degrees of Separation : BookerTalk

  • Karen, I am looking forward to watching the new TV series, but I am going to squeeze in a read of the unfinished book first. My copy has now arrived! 🙂

    • Good decision Jessica – the series is only barely based on the book. Everything after episode 1 is entirely concocted by Andrew Davies

  • Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    I loved Sutherland’s introduction to this new edition – it was so comprehensive without being long-winded, and really positioned Sanditon for me in both historical terms and also within Austen’s body of work. Great write up, thank you!

    • Agree with you on the quality of the introduction. Sometimes the academics who write these get carried away and include a lot of detail that to me doesn’t feel relevant. But this one was just the right level of insight and detail

  • I didn’t know about the new TV series in the wings & although I’m one of the few people on this planet who didn’t like the Andrew Davies version of P&P, this one looks rather sumptuous. Beautifully filmed if nothing else.

    • It is quite a visual treat. Not sure yet whether I like the program – need to see another episode and how the characters settle in.

  • I wonder if these first chapters would have changed much if she’d been able to finsih and revise the whole. They feel so much faster than her usual style that I wondered if she might have added more social observation at a later stage, although I felt there was still plenty already. I’m kinda terrified to watch the new adaptation – I shall have the remote handy!

    • I don’t know from her earlier novels whether her practice was to edit – would be interesting to discover that.

  • I’d been planning to watch the TV adaptation coming up as was intrigued to see what it was like as haven’t read Sanditon. However if there’s only going to be a tiny portion of Austen’s novel in the series then I won’t bother and read the book instead!!

    • I’m going to approach the new series as if it isn’t an adaptation because so little of the book has really made it to the screen. All Andrew Davies had to go on was a set of characters and the start of a plot so he can’t ‘ruin’ the book really

  • Two thoughts: whatever possessed them to use that cover image?
    I disliked Sanditon. The other aspect of it that we haven’t encountered before is its waspishness. In her finished novels Austen was witty but she was not cruel. I’m not a scholar but I think she would have revised it considerably if she’d had time.
    As I say in my review, I think Sanditon was published to satisfy Austenmania (although (based on my own conversations with devotees) I suspect that many of the people who say they love her have only ever watched the films).

    • The cover is odd indeed – nude bathing would have been considered scandalous at the time! They had to bathing machines didn’t they and wear a lot of clothing…..

      • I’m not even sure about that, Karen, I think bathing machines may not have been used until the late C19th…

        • I had to check this out 🙂 Wikipedia says ” According to some sources, the bathing machine was developed in 1750 ” – and it mentions some newspaper reports etc from around then. though its fair that it was the Victorian era that saw their popularity develop in a significant way

  • I love that term ‘toadying relatives’. So sad all of the writing in her had to stop at such a young age.

      • I think of Charles Dickens when I hear people describe others as toads though I don’t know if he used the term. Maybe Wind in the Willows? Haha

        • I had to find out! This is what I discovered – “ early 19th century: said to be a contraction of toad-eater, a charlatan’s assistant who ate toads; toads were regarded as poisonous, and the assistant’s survival was thought to be due to the efficacy of the charlatan’s remedy.”

        • That is good! Thanks for sharing. Derivations of language are fascinating.

  • Ooh thanks for the Sanditon adaptation heads up! Hadn’t realised there was one in the works

  • Isn’t it sad that she died so young? How many other of my favorite novels might she have written. I’m also sad about Charlotte Bronte – 38 years old! I believe Jane Austen had cancer, so there wasn’t much to be done, but Charlotte died from morning sickness due to pregnancy. What a waste.

    • There seem to be two causes of death given for Jane Austen. One retrospective diagnosis put her death down to Addison’s disease (an endocrine disorder), But there’s also been an indication that she died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma which is indeed a form of cancer.
      How can someone die from morning sickness – I can see how debilitating that can be because it means your body is not getting the nutrients it needs but never heard of it as life threatening

  • It is indeed tantalising, though loved what there was and was so pleased they retained her punctuation and spelling. I won’t be watching the TV version as I’ll no doubt hate what they do to it…

    • I’ve decided to ignore the pretence that its an adaptation because there is so little to base an adaptation on – its essentially like a scriptwriter being told ‘here’s the plot idea and the characters’. Write me a script….


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