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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

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