Sanditon, sadly, was Austen’s last novel. She left it unfinished at 12 chapters, dying before she could complete it. Like The Watsons, it tantalises Austen fans – even more so in a way because we have no information about how she planned to finish it. Consequently, our discussion had to start at first principles and just look at what we had in front of us.
What sort of work is Sanditon?
Our discussion started with two quite different opinions. One member said the novel felt less economical than Austen’s other works, more like her Juvenilia. Charlotte, she said, seems the only sane person, with the rest feeling rather like caricatures than the more “realistic” people we see in her other novels.
At the other end of the spectrum, another member proposed that the novel represents the beginning of something new, and that this was tackling societal issues – a precursor to Dickens – rather than just writing a marriage story.
We spent some time discussing these societal issues, one being the development of seaside resorts, of the “health resort industry”. We noted that the discussion about whether doctors are useful, indicated the more precarious reputation of doctors in Austen’s times.
We were intrigued by the references to West Indians, and also the rather casual introduction, at the end of the fragment, of Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender”. What does this mean, and where was Austen going to take Miss Lambe? Was she inspired by Dido, who was raised by Lord Mansfield.
The book also seems to explore money and consumerism, the idea that everything can be bought. Mr Parker is delighted to see some of the local cottages “smartened up with a white curtain and ‘Lodgings to let’” signs. The West Indians are also mentioned in the context of money:
But then, they who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief of raising the price of things – and I have heard that’s very much the case with your West-injines – and if they come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of life, we shall not much thank them Mr Parker.’
Does all this reflect the financial uncertainties being felt both in Austen’s own family (with, for example, the failure of Henry Austen’s bank) and in the wider post-war English society? We noted an early reference to money when Charlotte visits the circulating library and comments on managing her money.
We also wondered whether the book would present an anti-aristocracy agenda, through Lady Denman, whom Charlotte calls “mean”:
And she makes everybody mean about her. – This poor Sir Edward and his sister, – how far nature meant them to be respectable I cannot tell, – but they are obliged to be mean in their servility to her. – And I am mean too, in giving her my attention, with the appearance of co-inciding with her. – Thus it is, when rich people are sordid.’
That’s a pretty strong statement about aristocracy.
We considered the section in which the Parkers, including Mr Parker’s sister, Diana, discuss asking Lady Denman to help poorer people through a “charitable subscription”. In other books, such as Emma, wealthier characters do good works, but this seems to be a new – and money-based – direction for helping others.
One member wondered whether Austen was setting country life (via the Heywoods and also perhaps Mrs Parker’s preference for her Old Sanditon house in the “little contracted nook”) against coastal life. She felt that Austen doesn’t praise one over the other.
We also noted that, through Sir Edward, Sanditon ridicules readers who write them themselves into novels (as she does in Northanger Abbey).
We talked about changes in her style, and felt that both style and content mark Sanditon as a transition novel. For example, the novel opens rather startlingly with a dramatic event, the overturning of a carriage (though fortunately no-one is seriously injured.)
There is also a lot more description, both of people and place. In our discussion of The Watsons, we discussed her heavy use of dialogue to move the story along, but this is not so in Sanditon where there’s significant description of the characters, and where much of the narrative is carried through Charlotte, who functions, in these opening chapters anyhow, as an observer.
What hasn’t changed, however, is Austen’s incisiveness, such as her description of Mr Parker as “more imagination than judgement” and Mrs Parker as “equally useless”!
We also discussed some words/phrases, and whether Austen had coined them. Does the phrase Nosey Parker come from the Parkers? There are various ideas about its origins, but our member felt Austen could be credited with the idea. However, she said, it is accepted that Austen coined the term “pseudo-philosophy“. Finally, we all had to look up a word none of us knew – eleemosynary.
We commented briefly on Austen’s use of irony and satire in the novel – and the ironic fact that she was writing this book about hypochondria when her own health was really failing.
One member noted the use of a letter to introduce the Parker siblings. We agreed that letters aren’t uncommon in Austen, but that the use could be different here.
How would the book play out?
Of course we talked about where the plot might go, particularly in terms of pairings, though one member suggested that maybe the heroine, Charlotte, would not marry. Now, that would be a radical departure for Austen! However, if she did, some of the ideas presented were that Charlotte would:
- reform the indolent, hypochondriac, Arthur Parker
- marry Sidney Parker
- marry one of the friends who’ve come to town with Sidney
Other ideas were that Sidney would save Clara Brereton from the lecherous Sir Edward.
One member, though, questioned whether Sidney could be the hero, given he arrives in a carriage!
Bits and pieces
Other points of discussion included:
- the various continuations, including Reginald Hill’s A cure for all diseases.
- Sir Edward as a precursor to Harvey Weinstein!
- the Parker siblings – and that Susan probably has Munchausen syndrome, while Arthur is just plain lazy. One member commented that the Parkers were “goers”, who actively helped each other. But we also noted Charlotte’s comment about them: “vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.”
Next month, we will test some of these ideas against those of critics and commentators!