Jane Austen’s Sanditon

With essay by Janet Todd

Fentum Press, £9.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Those who watched Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon but have not read the book might like to know that, by the end of episode one, Davies had all but exhausted the source material. Thereafter, his script was as great a work of fantasy as Austen ever wrote though not, obviously, in the same class.

From the little I saw of the TV version, however, Davies’s caper did manage to capture the rambunctious and caricatured spirit of Austen’s final work. The 12 chapters she managed to write before laying it aside in March, 1818, four months before her death, were decidedly different from her previous six books. Its change in tone alarmed admirers such as EM Forster. In her scholarly introduction, the renowned Austen expert Janet Todd writes that Forster “was immune to Sanditon’s vitality”, and considered it a dramatic falling-off.

Others shared his view. Austen’s brother James was appalled to think the public might catch sight of it, and did his best to smother it before birth. As it stood, Sanditon was more like the spoofs Austen had written for her family’s amusement since she was a girl: not subtle, but caustically, indeed gloriously satirical. That this was her intention with a story about the rise of the English seaside resort, which acted like a magnet for hypochondriacs, is evident from the amendments she made to her manuscript. Where Diana Parker, a walking medical dictionary, professes to have rubbed a gentleman’s sore ankle incessantly for four hours in order to ease the sprain, Austen crossed out four and replaced it with six. When Diana’s sister faints on hearing her brother sneeze, this is altered to “on poor Arthur’s trying to suppress a cough”. The whole point of this sadly unfinished farce was excess in every shape, be it imaginary malady, reckless investment, immoderate enthusiasms, or penny-pinching.

Austen, many of whose letters were burned after her death by her sister Cassandra, nevertheless left sufficient correspondence for readers to catch a glimpse of the genius behind the page. In one, she admitted her love of the seaside. An affectionate watercolour by Cassandra, one of many illustrations embellishing Todd’s long and colourful essay, shows her as a young woman, her bonnet ribbons loose, seated on a hillside looking out to sea. On being invited to a visit to the countryside, Austen once wrote, “we greatly prefer the sea to all our relations”.

Bearing this out, seaside resorts feature in all her novels, even if off-stage. Even before Napoleonic wars came to an end, the middle and upper classes were treating themselves not just to health-giving trips to spa resorts with their sulphurous waters but to the less foul-smelling beaches off the south coast. At Weymouth, for instance, the ailing George III ventured from his bathing machine into the sea, only to be met on resurfacing by an orchestra in the adjoining cubicle playing the National Anthem.

Much of Sanditon’s fascination lies in it being only a fragment. Also, that it was written as Austen was dying. Opinion about the cause of her death varies. Todd, whose memoir, Radiation Diaries, records her own experience of cancer, believes it was Addison’s Disease. Others suggest Hodgkin’s lymphoma or stomach cancer. Whatever the truth, it can be no coincidence that the objects of Austen’s highest scorn and merriment were the three members of the Parker family who believe themselves perpetually at death’s door. Diana, Susan and Arthur delight in self medicating, as when Susan, who had been under the weather, had three teeth pulled without anaesthetic. Thereafter her nerves are somewhat deranged. As her sister relates, she “had no hysterics of consequence till we came within sight of poor old Sanditon – and the attack was not very violent – nearly over by the time we reached your hotel – so that we got her out of the carriage extremely well, with only Mr Woodcock’s assistance...”

Nothing in Austen’s earlier novels, including the posthumously published Persuasion, prepares the reader for the slapstick of Sanditon. Opening with the romantic novelist’s cliche of a coach overturning in a country lane, it begins with Tom Parker, who has sprained his ankle, and his not too bright wife, being taken into the nearby house of Mr and Mrs Heywood. They, long married, with 14 children, never leave the neighbourhood apart from Mr Heywood’s twice-annual trips to London to collect his dividends. In their abundant self-satisfaction and contentment, they are portrayed as denizens of old-fashioned, reliable rural England. Tom Parker, however, whose life’s goal is to establish the tiny seaside town of Sanditon as a first-rate holiday destination, invites their daughter Charlotte to stay. As he enthuses to his hosts: “The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every disorder, of the stomach, the lungs or the blood; they were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-septic, anti-bilious and anti-rheumatic...”

Through Charlotte’s eyes Austen introduces the reader to a picturesque cliff-top village, with newly built houses and streets, and its main investor, the avaricious Lady Denham. One by one fresh characters drive into town, promising love, intrigue or comedy. Among the least subtle is Sir Edward, a fortune-hunter who models himself on the vicious Lovelace, who abducted and raped his victim in Samuel Richardson’s tragic novel, Clarissa. Sir Edward has similar designs on Lady Denham’s impecunious relative, Clara, not appreciating that Lovelace was not intended as a role model but a figure of revulsion. By the point at which the novel abruptly ends, however, it is the Parkers, and especially Tom’s ridiculous siblings, who have stolen the show.

Todd speculates whether in this, and other aspects of the novel, Austen was indulging in wish fulfilment. These imaginary invalids miraculously surmount their ailments when there’s something interesting to do. She sees more in common between the fussing, interfering Diana and her author, than with healthy young Charlotte, who looks upon the seaside enthusiasts with sensible astonishment, and never so much as stubs her toe.

Even though Sanditon reads like a parody of its author’s earlier works, Austen’s story engages completely, as always. There are brilliant one-liners, lightning fast sketches and a breezy maturity that conveys a sense of urgency. In its hurtling momentum and impatience, leaving no pointed barb unflung, it is also possible to discern the author’s awareness that her time was drawing to a close.