The Restless Comedy of Jane Austen’s Unfinished Last
Fragment of a Seaside Romp
Was there ever a fragment like Jane Austen’s Sanditon? The distinguished novelist suffering a long decline—her brother Henry alleged that “the symptoms of a decay, deep and incurable, began to show themselves in the commencement of 1816″—used her last months to compose a work that mocks energetic hypochondriacs and departs radically from the increasing emphasis on the interior life marking the previous novels.
However weak her body—and she wrote some passages first in pencil, being unable to cope with a pen—clearly her spirit was robust. Not only that: worrying herself sick about money after a family bankruptcy, she was writing a book of jokes about risky investments and comic speculators.
For us, her readers and admirers, the farcical, ebullient Sanditon is achingly sad, for it ends with “March 18,” neatly written on an almost empty page. The final date signified that Jane Austen would write no more novels. A few days later she admitted, “Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life.” She had begun the work in a period of remission, but now she sighed, “I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again.” In April, she admitted, “I have really been too unwell the last fortnight to write anything”: she was suffering from “a Bilious attack, attended with a good deal of fever.” Four months after interrupting her last novel, she died.
Frugal with paper and densely covering her page with neat handwriting, at her death she left empty a large portion of the homemade Sanditon booklets (created by folding and cutting sheets of writing paper, then stitching them together). We know that she was dying, she could not be sure. As a result of these blank prepared pages, the final dating, and the enigmatic nature of the plot, what is not written haunts what is, and no number of continuations by cameras and other pens can quite displace the ghostly presence of that emptiness.
In contrast to the earlier novels about great houses and rural villages, Sanditon’s 12 chapters do not describe a tight country society but a developing coastal resort full of restless traveling people—the novel becomes an exuberant comedy not of organic community but rather of bodies whose weaknesses are delivered with zest. It is a surprising subject for Jane Austen’s last work, which fits neither with her previous subtle comedies of manners nor with the sentimental romantic nostalgia they gave rise to in her global fandom. The world of Sanditon is absurd, unsettled and unsettling.
The fragment introduces an array of smart, silly and ludicrous characters. Like Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, it begins by translating the heroine, Charlotte Heywood, to a place where she can enter a story. She is the first Austen heroine with the name (although Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Charlotte Lucas plays a significant role in Pride and Prejudice). In a letter of 1813 Austen related how she met a “Charlotte Williams,” whose sagacity and taste she admired. “Those large, dark eyes always judge well. — I will compliment her, by naming a Heroine after her.”
Charlotte Heywood’s translation comes about through an accident. On his way from London to the coast and making a detour to find a surgeon for his new resort, the impetuous Mr Tom Parker unwisely insists on trundling his hired coach up a poorly maintained lane. It overturns, and the crash gives him a sprained ankle. He is forced to stay with nearby rural landowners, the practical Heywoods, just then busy with June hay-making; on his departure, he repays their fortnight’s hospitality by carrying with him one of their 14 children.Jane Austen had just been revising her old novel Northanger Abbey when she began Sanditon.
Unlike the heroines of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, Charlotte is not deposited in a great house to cope with bullying or tyrannical inmates. Instead, she is taken to the new resort of Sanditon on the Sussex coast, where, much like her fictional predecessors, she will, over the next weeks, observe, judge, maybe change and possibly find love—though by the end of the fragment few hints of a lover are emerging beyond a promising mention of sense and wealth in Tom Parker’s younger brother Sidney.
(Perhaps strangely so for readers eager to find romance in the author herself. A family tradition has Jane falling in love in the Devon coastal resort of Sidmouth, probably with a clergyman—the younger family members often seem eager to provide male love-objects for their famous aunt. The absence of letters from 1801 to 1804 when she visited five or more resorts shrouds the possible romance from biographers—but not from creative fans.)
In her role as observer, the clear-eyed Charlotte less resembles the usual Austen heroine who matures through incidents and errors and more the foreigner or stranger used in satire to notice and comment on eccentric and perplexing native habits—or Lewis Carroll’s young, down-to-earth Alice trying to assess Wonderland with above-land tools. An older, more mature narrator bustles in at times to stress Charlotte’s inexperience and tendency to categorical judgement—a narrator far from the “impersonal,” “inscrutable” one Virginia Woolf discovered in Austen’s work.
A young woman of Charlotte’s age quite properly appreciates sexual interest and should enjoy the attentions of a handsome baronet, remarks the narrator. But mostly she lets us see through her heroine’s youthfully disapproving, sometimes intemperate eyes, so that we are led to laugh at a proliferation of herbal teas or a cautious consideration of butchers’ meat and servants’ wages, without hesitating to wonder if this is wise.
Jane Austen had just been revising her old novel Northanger Abbey when she began Sanditon. In her character as judge and observer, Charlotte is almost the reverse of the earlier heroine since she assumes rationality in the irrational, where Catherine Morland does the opposite. The people whom Charlotte mostly watches are not young men and women competing for marriage partners but the speculating pair behind the resort’s creation: her host, the enthusiastic Mr Parker, and Lady Denham, the local great lady with “many thousands a year to bequeath” and three sets of relatives courting her. Parsimonious and mean, she is also, like so many women in Austen’s novels, cannier in money matters than the men around her.
Among the arriving visitors to Sanditon are Tom Parker’s siblings, two vigorously invalid sisters and a third brother, the indolent, guzzling Arthur, who has caught the habit of ill health like an infection from his sisters. With gusto the trio self-diagnose and self-medicate, and together they form a droll commentary on the new leisure pursuit of hypochondria and invalidism which the eldest brother Tom Parker is exploiting.
Plot incident is promised through the circle of toadies round Lady Denham. These include two rivals for the widow’s unusually disposable property: the impecunious heir and nephew by marriage, Sir Edward, the “remnant” of a second husband, and Clara, a distant relative chosen over nearer kin to be Lady Denham’s companion.
The usual assumption was that quixotic girls (like Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, and Lydia Languish in Sheridan’s The Rivals and Arabella in Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote before her) were most susceptible to fiction, but, from her juvenile tales through to Sanditon, Jane Austen knew men were just as likely to be overwhelmed. In Love and Freindship, written when she was 14, Sir Edward discovers his son, another Edward, has a head filled with “unmeaning Gibberish” from sentimental novels, while a second Sir Edward in Sanditon is addled by sensational romance (Austen was a frequent recycler of names and motifs).
Both young Edwards are prey to precisely the kind of fiction she herself does not write but towards which some of her less acute supporters tried to steer her by suggesting more “incident.” In Sanditon, Sir Edward intends to provide “incident” by being what Austen termed “a very fine villain.” Misreading and misusing literature, he proposes to be a charismatic rake in the line of Lovelace, who rapes the virtuous heroine in Samuel Richardson’s huge tragic novel Clarissa of 1748, surely an outdated libertine model for a young man of 1817 when the most celebrated society seducer would have been Lord Byron—although Byron rarely needed Lovelace’s violence.
To fulfil his wicked ambition, Sir Edward proposes to abduct the beautiful Clara out of the clutches of Lady Denham. He fancies a solitary house near Timbuctoo to take her to—in fact all he has on offer is his own damp property and the tourist cottage he is building on Lady Denham’s waste ground. The fragment trails off before Sir Edward can act or Clara can resist.
Charlotte thinks Sir Edward “downright silly,” though he is not alone in seeing Clara Brereton through the gauze of literary melodrama or gothic: Charlotte too refers to Clara as a “character” and a “heroine” in a story. The put-upon “humble companion” was a stock figure of female novels of the time and, with her beauty, poverty and dependence, Clara seems to Charlotte ripe for such a literary role.
Beyond any single person, in Sanditon the seaside resort is subject and center of the novel—and Mr Tom Parker is almost synonymous with it:
Sanditon was a second wife and four children to him—hardly less dear—and certainly more engrossing. — 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.
It has invaded his mind so that he can boast with crazy sincerity that its sea air and bathing are “healing, soft[en]ing, relaxing—fortifying and bracing—seemingly just as was wanted—sometimes one, sometimes the other.”The usual assumption was that quixotic girls . . . were most susceptible to fiction, but, from her juvenile tales through to Sanditon, Jane Austen knew men were just as likely to be overwhelmed.
An Austen family tradition has as the intended title of the fragment not the seaside resort itself but “The Brothers.” The suggestion has some merit since, as far as the twelve chapters can tell us, the three Parker brothers, Tom, Sidney and Arthur, will form interesting contrasts throughout the story. Such a masculine title and such a dominant theme of male relationships would, however, be as much a break with the six complete novels as the comically exaggerated characters appear to be.
Jane Austen does describe close relationships between men—Darcy and Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, the Knightley brothers in Emma—but she doesn’t much dwell on them and there are far more depictions of women together, especially sisters when these are congenial.
In her life too, outside the hazy heterosexual romances, Jane Austen reveals close ties with women, her sister Cassandra of course, but also with cheerful, kindly Martha Lloyd, called “friend & Sister,” with whom, she, Cassandra and their mother lived most of the time from 1805 until Jane’s death; the Bigg sisters, the lifelong friendship with whom survived the debacle of Jane’s one-night engagement to their brother Harris Bigg-Wither; her two eldest nieces, Fanny Knight and Anna Austen; and two women below her own gentlewoman status, Anne Sharp, Fanny’s often ailing governess at Godmersham—her “sweet flattery” of Jane’s writing success made her “an excellent kind friend’—and Madame Bigeon, a French emigrée and Henry Austen’s housekeeper, to whom she left £50 in her will. In the fragment of Sanditon, the most intriguing female relationship is that between the poor companion Clara Brereton and the patroness Lady Denham.
Within Jane Austen’s immediate family there are also close relationships between Jane and her five brothers, though they differ in intimacy. It is least evident with Edward, the most distant in circumstance and place—the only one whose name is used in the novel (for the predatory baronet)—most with Henry, of whom there are more descriptions in her surviving letters.
With the eldest James, she shared a love of reading and writing, and she had huge respect and affection for Frank and Charles and fascination for their adventurous naval careers. In Sanditon, whatever might have been intended for the finished novel, in the part we have the dominant family players are not the three brothers but the enthusiastic, addicted brother-and-sister pair, Tom and Diana Parker. If the work should be named after family members at all, it might perhaps best be titled The Enthusiasts: Thomas and Diana Parker.
Both siblings are mocked for this enthusiasm, and also for their shared desire to surround themselves with company. Although sociable, especially in her last years Jane Austen relished periods of solitude, times when she was “very little plagued with visitors,” when she might enjoy “quiet, & exemption from the Thought & contrivances which any sort of company gives.”
Tom and Diana are eager for company of all sorts at all times, Diana imagining and scheming for visitors and Tom Parker seeing the whole of Sanditon as a kind of house party, only successful if crammed—he had wanted to bring all the Heywoods with him to Trafalgar House. In this he is heir to Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility and Mr Weston in Emma, whose desire for company frequently exceeds that of their more discerning guests.
For a fictional plot to develop, however, a houseful of guests and frequent comings and goings have many advantages.