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Catching Austen in Acts of Greatness: Re-Reading Sanditon with Caution

One disjunctive moment worth re-reading in Jane Austen’s Sanditon occurs when the reader learns that Sir Edward Denham is “quite determined on” seducing Clara Brereton (Minor Works 405).  In Austen’s earlier six completed novels, seduction plots and secret attachments almost always remain hidden for quite a while.  Moreover, once they are exposed, they tend to surprise, shock, or otherwise startle characters into growth, and/or to nudge plots toward resolution.  In Pride and Prejudice, for example, the revelation of George Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana Darcy shatters Elizabeth Bennet’s character assessments of both Fitzwilliam Darcy and Wickham.  Similarly, the revelation of the Fairfax-Churchill secret engagement in Emma not only contributes to Emma’s humbling self-assessment but actually catalyzes George Knightley’s return to Hartfield and prompts his unplanned proposal.  

Sanditon breaks this pattern in a number of ways, not the least of which is its early revelation of a seduction plot still in its planning stages.  And, as Marvin Mudrick observes, Sanditon seems to be breaking Austen’s self-imposed taboo in which the “actual seduction or the planning of seduction must never be represented comically” (244).  Additionally, instead of catalyzing a resolution, Sanditon’s revelation of its seduction plot raises interpretive questions instead of resolving them.  Also interesting is the fact that none of Austen’s earlier novels reveals a seducer’s internal thoughts directly to the reader.1  In contrast, Sanditon’s narrator reports Sir Edward’s intentions directly: 

He felt that he was formed to be a dangerous Man—quite in the line of the Lovelaces.—The very name of Sir Edward he thought, carried some degree of fascination with it.—. . . [B]ut it was Clara alone on whom he had serious designs; it was Clara whom he meant to seduce.—Her seduction was quite determined on.  Her Situation in every way called for it. . . . If she could not be won by affection, he must carry her off.  He knew his Business.  (405) 

Sir Edward’s attitude toward seduction is comic, in part, because his desire to seduce Clara Brereton seems guided by generic conventions rather than by erotic desire.  His first desire is to achieve the character of a “dangerous Man.”  The extended use of passive voice throughout this passage emphasizes the idea that having decided to become a dangerous, seductive antihero, Sir Edward must therefore seduce a vulnerable female.  Clara’s seduction thus becomes “quite determined on,” not because he wants to seduce her in particular, but because her “situation in every way called for it.” 

Ridiculous as it may be, this moment nonetheless remains disturbing because Sir Edward is still actually planning a seduction, however ineffectual it may or may not turn out to be.  Given that the eponymous heroine of Clarissa lost the will to live after being abducted and raped, a character aspiring to imitate Lovelace is difficult material for comedy.   

This disjunctive admixture of comedy and violence might not seem compatible with Austen’s earlier six completed novels.2  Nor does it seem accidental.  As the passage continues, it seems to deliberately intensify its own dissonance: 

he must naturally wish to strike out something new, to exceed those who had gone before him—and he felt a strong curiosity to ascertain whether the Neighbourhood of Tombuctoo might not afford some solitary House adapted for Clara’s reception;—but the Expence alas! of Measures in that masterly style was ill-suited to his Purse, & Prudence obliged him to prefer the quietest sort of ruin & disgrace for the object of his Affections. . . . (405–06) 

Here comedy spars with violence, much as the sociopathic narrator of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” discusses the rationale for re-purposing all those deliciously tender Irish babies.  Sir Edward’s rational consideration of economic constraints exists in complete disregard of the moral and the humane.  The logical contradiction that Sir Edward is planning “ruin and disgrace” for the “object of his affections” signals burlesque; however, the phrase “ruin and disgrace” troubles the comic waters.  In what sense is Sir Edward actually planning sexual violence?  Prior to this passage, he tells Charlotte that no woman can “‘be a fair Judge of what a Man may be propelled to say, write or do, by the sovereign impulses of illimitable Ardour’” (398).  This sexist rationalization for violence emphasizes the sociopathic sense in which Sir Edward’s moral boundaries seem beyond the pale. 

Perhaps, as some critics have suggested, if Austen had had time to finish and revise Sanditon, she would have toned down the violence and/or smoothed out the cognitive dissonance in this type of passage.  However, it seems equally possible that Austen is deliberately incorporating disjunction.  If so, this is hardly new territory for her.  Her juvenilia famously abounds with far more overt acts of disjunction.  From writing “Finis” at the end of abruptly unfinished stories, to titling a story with the name of a character who never appears, Austen’s juvenilia joyfully exposes, abuses, and/or otherwise radically exploits narrative conventions to amuse, mislead, and/or startle readers.  Likewise, Lady Susan expertly exploits the power of rhetoric to misdirect interpretation.  Austen corresponded with her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy, about Anna’s manuscript entitled “Which is the Heroine?” (10 August 1814), which obviously foregrounds a question of interpretation.  Even Austen’s “Plan of a Novel,” written in 1816, signals her consistent battle against conventional novelistic patterns.  Since Austen began writing Sanditon in 1817, her satiric “Plan” may signal that Sanditon would ring even more changes on the conventional novel. 

As John Mullan notes, although we don’t often think of Austen as “experimental” (4), she “did things with fiction that had never been done before” (2).  Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen? discusses several of these features, including her use of specialized idiolects and her highly sophisticated mastery of indirect free discourse.  Austen also consistently resisted the Regency model of the conventional perfect heroine.  Perhaps because “pictures of perfection” made Austen feel “sick & wicked” (23–25 March 1817), while writing Emma, she invented a heroine who was obviously flawed:  “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (Austen-Leigh 157).  In fact, however, most of Austen’s works resist images of perfection, which was in itself something of a radical departure for Regency novels. 

The disjunctive early revelation of Sir Edward’s seduction plot is one indication that Sanditon may be intentionally breaking new ground.  B. C. Southam notes Sanditon’s “obvious originality” (104).  He also notices, along with other critics, that instead of staying focused on “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” (9–18 September 1814), Sanditon sets itself within a recently developing seaside resort, an unsettled site of ambiguity.  To Regency readers, the seaside signals “flirtations and engagements, attachments and elopements, love and sex” (Mullan 87).  Simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically, “the annual seaside visit had become a badge of genteel status” (Mullan 90).  If Austen were setting herself a new challenge in Sanditon, she may well have chosen both its heroine and its setting to test readers’ abilities to read through the mist of competing conventions.  Is Sanditon’s resort a setting for illicit tête-à-têtes?  A place of genteel status, associated with fresh air, health, and healing?  A something between? 

Its exposed seduction plot and unsettled setting constitute only a few of this novel’s interesting disjunctions.  As Charlotte’s fluctuating assessments of Lady Denham, Sir Edward, Clara Brereton, and the several Parker family members remind us, character assessments are also unsettled in this novel.  This ambiguity is especially apparent in Sir Edward, who violates the trope of the quixote that Austen’s well-read contemporaries would have recognized in a character whose mind has been addled by too much novel reading.  Sir Edward had been “confined very much to one spot [and] had read more sentimental Novels than agreed with him” (404).  From Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) to Scott’s Waverley (1814), the popular trope of the quixote was known for embodying idealistic and/or impractical ideals from literary works (especially romances) with comic results.  In this tradition, quixotic characters are motivated by an ethical core, although comically blind to practical reality.  Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland and Scott’s eponymous Waverley, for example, both make humorous mistakes by reading “real life” through the lens of romantic and/or gothic conventions.  Nonetheless, both are highly susceptible to honor and shame. 

Sir Edward Denham at first seems to fit this mode.  Despite his addled brain, as the relative who might have the “fairest chance of succeeding” to Lady Denham’s fortune (377), he is “superior” to his sister and “certainly handsome” (394).  He walks into a room well, has a “most pleasing gentleness of voice, & a great deal of Conversation” (394–95).  These traits are ambiguous, however.  He may intend to rank himself in the “line of the Lovelaces” (alongside Wickham and Willoughby), but he could have been formed in the line of the Bingleys—worthy despite a problematic character flaw.  In any case, the most striking difference in this treatment of character is that Sanditon’s readers are not left to puzzle with the heroine over hidden intentions.  Sanditon’s narrator directly informs readers of the “truth” that Sir Edward “had read more sentimental Novels than agreed with him” and then immediately and thoroughly explains his central fixation “to be seductive” (404, 405), instead of allowing his unexplained behavior to create interpretive tension. 

This explanation effectively compromises Sir Edward’s position in the line of the quixotes, just as his plot to “ruin” Clara Brereton and his relegation of ethical boundaries to “‘the grovellings of a common mind’” (398) disturb not only the comic impulse but the romantic.  These disjunctions, the narrator’s direct reporting to the reader, and Charlotte’s shifting assessments of Sir Edward, all signal that Sanditon may be intentionally unsettling generic conventions in order to disturb readers’ reliance on narrative conventions. 

Sanditon also disrupts another generic pattern familiar to Austen’s readers.  Its articulate traveler, Charlotte Heywood, embarks on a journey during which she observes a high number of eccentrics.  As such, Sanditon seems to be signaling the genre of the “sentimental journey,” in which both amusement and sentimental emotion were the expected pleasures of the text.  However, it works against this expectation as well, since Charlotte remains more often bemused or reflective than emotionally involved. 

Even more puzzling from a generic standpoint is Sanditon’s relationship to the traditional synergy between satire and comedy.  In one early instance, the novel contrasts Miss Denham’s bored passivity (in the absence of Lady Denham) with her animated obsequiousness (in Lady Denham’s presence).  Just after Charlotte observes this contrast, the narrator interjects that whether one finds it “very amusing” or “very melancholy” depends on whether “Satire or Morality might prevail” (396).  Readers attuned to eighteenth-century conventions might here be unsettled, since Sanditon is contrasting satire and morality instead of assuming they work together.  As Jonathan Swift phrases the standard eighteenth-century understanding, satire is “As with a moral View design’d / To cure the Vices of Mankind” (565). 

Austen’s earlier novels provide many hints that she was interested in the unstable relationship between satire and morality.  In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet’s satiric laughter at Mr. Darcy does eventually contribute to his moral improvement, but Elizabeth correlates her own satiric actions with the moral mistake of pride.  She confesses that she had “‘meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to [Mr. Darcy], without any reason’” (225).  Her satiric interpretation of his behavior is thus no friend to morality (although it may have contributed to his initial attraction). 

This point bears further examination because Elizabeth’s oft-quoted distinction about the proper target of satiric ridicule occurs precisely at the moment that she is making the very mistake she thinks she understands.  Elizabeth avers, “‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good.  Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can’” (57).  In conjunction with the text’s italicized “do,” Elizabeth’s “I own” seems almost confessional, as if satiric laughter requires apology.  But re-readers will also notice that this comment occurs precisely when Elizabeth is most determined to make fun of Mr. Darcy.  The rarely quoted final portion of her speech is a direct accusation of Mr. Darcy:  “‘But these [Follies, etc.], I suppose, are precisely what you are without.’”  At this point, Elizabeth is so strongly prepossessed against Mr. Darcy that she is blind to details that might alter her fixed interpretation. 

Emma’s conflict over whether to be amused by or ashamed of her friend Harriet Smith also follows this pattern, in which a fundamental interpretive mistake is correlated with the impulse toward satiric laughter in a moment of narrative misdirection.  When Harriet Smith becomes quite agitated after seeing Mr. Martin, despite the fact that she is still mourning Mr. Elton’s marriage, Emma hardly knows “whether to rejoice or be angry, ashamed or only amused” (180).  She is torn between satiric amusement and judgment.  First-time readers identifying too closely with Emma are presumably as amused as Emma is, but re-readers cannot laugh without implicating themselves in her self-centered determination to ignore evidence that Harriet does indeed care very much for Mr. Martin.  This moment is central to reader dissatisfaction with Emma, and its combination of dissatisfaction and misdirection is perhaps the point of this novel’s experiment with an unlikeable heroine. 

As a heroine, Charlotte Heywood perhaps represents another change in direction.  Whereas Austen’s earlier heroines take a long time to recognize mistaken interpretations, Charlotte is remarkable for the flexibility of her interpretive stance.  Many critics have noticed Charlotte’s “capable state of judging” (MW 395), and Sanditon seems invested in establishing Charlotte as a careful and “trustworthy” observer (McMaster, “The Watchers” 156).  When she first meets the attentive Sir Edward, Charlotte is flattered.  However, six lines later she detects “a slight change in Sir Edw:’s countenance” in an “anxious glance” after Clara Brereton, which disabuses her of her romantic fantasy about him (395).  This passage models Charlotte’s ability to expose the false narrative of seduction, even when doing so does not flatter one’s own ego.  She certainly thus seems to be a model reader/interpreter. 

By setting up Charlotte as an ostensibly model reader, however, Austen might be deliberately attempting to mislead Sanditon’s readers.  Throughout her juvenilia, Austen catalyzes one type of conventional readerly response, only to very rapidly shift to a competing mode.  For example, the ending of “Edgar and Emma” exploits the sentimental for comic effect: 

It was with difficulty that Emma could refrain from tears on hearing of the absence of Edgar; she remained however tolerably composed till the Willmot’s were gone when having no check to the overflowings of her greif, she gave free vent to them, & retiring to her own room, continued in tears the remainder of her Life.  (MW 33) 

This humorous moment burlesques narrative conventions (perhaps for the sheer joy of exposing them).  Her six completed novels are rarely as overtly interested in upending conventions, since they depend on readers who can understand and follow narrative patterns that sustain and enrich plot and character development.  They do, however, often mislead or misdirect readers with highly effective technical skill, especially Emma, which famously depends on its first-time readers being tricked by Emma’s point of view.  Sanditon might represent a continued interest in new ways to mislead readers by toying with generic expectations and novelistic conventions.  Its disjunctive moments may be part of a new type of experiment in teaching readers what it means to be sufficiently well read. 

Charlotte’s status as a reader/interpreter is thus key.  Natalie DeVaull-Robichaud helpfully calls into question the “objectivity of Charlotte’s judgment” and her status as a careful observer.  She raises the possibility that Charlotte’s emphatic judgment of Lady Denham as “‘very, very mean’” (402) is one of Charlotte’s potential mistakes in interpretation, especially when this assessment is contrasted with her earlier, more objective assessments.  The first time that Charlotte witnesses Lady Denham and Clara together, she resists “fancying the Persecutions which ought to be the Lot of the interesting Clara, especially in the form of the most barbarous conduct on Lady Denham’s side.”  Instead, Charlotte “found no reluctance to admit from subsequent observation, that they appeared to be on very comfortable Terms. . . . On one side it seemed protecting kindness, on the other grateful & affectionate respect” (392). 

This initial assessment seems to substantiate the idea that, in contrast to Sir Edward, Charlotte has not been addled by novel reading.  Despite being “sufficiently well-read in Novels,” she is not “at all unreasonably influenced by them” (392).  Specifically, she resists the initial romance of the lovely, penniless heroine (Clara Brereton) persecuted by the rich widow (Lady Denham).  It would be easy at this point in the novel to assume that novels have not inflamed her imagination beyond what reason and objective observation could control.  Just a few pages later, however, after further conversation with Lady Denham, Charlotte reverts to her original sense that “‘Poor Miss Brereton!’” (402) must be suffering barbarous persecution after all.  Charlotte revises her cautiously benevolent interpretation of Lady Denham from “protective” and “kind” to “very, very mean.”  She can “‘see no Good in her’” (402).  Moreover, Charlotte comes to the emphatic conclusion that Lady Denham “‘makes every body mean about her’” (402).  She then concludes, “‘Thus it is, when Rich People are Sordid’” (402). 

Charlotte’s swift, emphatic shift from cautious observation to moral indignation raises a question.  If Clara is being persecuted by a barbarous Lady Denham, as a naïve novel reader would have assumed to begin with, then what is the point of Charlotte’s earlier careful observation that Lady Denham and Clara are on excellent terms?  Charlotte was either incorrect in her first observation (raising doubts about her accuracy as an observer) or she is incorrect in her second far more vehement and less cautious assessment (raising doubts about her reliability).  Readers attempting to build interpretations about Lady Denham or her relationship with Clara Brereton may be misdirected one way or the other by this passage. 

Perhaps one benefit of re-reading Sanditon with caution is the possibility of catching it in the act of misleading normally good readers.  To this end, it should be useful to compare Charlotte’s interpretation of two scenes in which Sir Edward and Clara are sitting tête-à-tête.  Here the text may encourage the reader to participate in Charlotte’s interpretive mistakes, much as Emma encourages its first-time readers to make Emma’s interpretative mistakes.  In the first scene, Sir Edward and Clara are seated on the public terrace in the heart of new Sanditon.  In the second scene, Charlotte accidentally spies them again—this time sitting almost hidden on the grounds of Lady Denham’s Sanditon House in old Sanditon.  Reading these two passages in conjunction suggests that only a few months into its writing, Austen was exercising impressive control over the text of Sanditon

In the first tête-à-tête between Clara Brereton and Sir Edward, Charlotte seems to be a trustworthy, sober-minded, observer: 

Charlotte’s first glance told her that Sir Edw:’s air was that of a Lover.—There could be no doubt of his Devotion to Clara.—How Clara received it, was less obvious—but she was inclined to think not very favourably; for tho’ sitting thus apart with him (which probably she might not have been able to prevent) her air was calm & grave.—  (395–96) 

Here, although Charlotte immediately detects signs of the lover in Sir Edward, she suspends her judgment about how Clara receives his attention.  In her role as careful observer, Charlotte brackets her observations in sober hypotheticals (e.g., “inclined” and “probably”).  Although she makes a prediction about the probability of Clara’s amount of control over the situation, it is also carefully qualified with the conditional “might not.”  One interesting exception in this passage to Charlotte’s normal cautiousness is her sense that “[t]here could be no doubt of his Devotion to Clara,” which again raises doubts about Charlotte’s accuracy as an observer. 

The second tête-à-tête scene occurs after the reader has learned about Sir Edward’s intention to seduce Clara Brereton.  It bears a striking number of similarities to the first tête-à-tête scene, although Charlotte’s conclusions after each scene are very different: 

Charlotte as soon as they entered the Enclosure, caught a glimpse over the pales of something White & Womanish in the field on the other side;—it was something which immediately brought Miss B. into her head—& stepping to the pales, she saw indeed—& very decidedly, in spite of the Mist; Miss B— seated, not far before her, at the foot of the bank which sloped down from the outside of the Paling & which a narrow Path seemed to skirt along;—Miss Brereton seated, apparently very composedly—& Sir E. D. by her side.—They were sitting so near each other & appeared so closely engaged in gentle conversation, that Ch. instantly felt she had nothing to do but to step back again, & say not a word.—Privacy was certainly their object.—It could not but strike her rather unfavourably with regard to Clara;—but hers was a situation which must not be judged with severity.—She was glad to perceive that nothing had been discerned by Mrs Parker; If Charlotte had not been considerably the tallest of the two, Miss B.’s white ribbons might not have fallen within the ken of her more observant eyes.—Among other points of moralising reflection which the sight of this Tete a Tete produced, Charlotte cd not but think of the extreme difficulty which secret Lovers must have in finding a proper spot for their stolen Interviews.—Here perhaps they had thought themselves so perfectly secure from observation!—the whole field open before them—a steep bank & Pales never crossed by the foot of Man at their back—and a great thickness of air, in aid—.  Yet here, she had seen them.  They were really ill-used. (426–27) 

In both tête-à-tête scenes, Clara and Sir Edward are seated in close conversation.  In both, they are being observed by Charlotte although they do not know it.  In both, Clara is apparently very calm and composed.  The word “unfavorably” also appears in both passages, albeit to different ends.  In addition, just as the first scene emphasizes Charlotte’s observational trustworthiness, so does the second.  It stresses “her more observant eyes” and further stresses that Charlotte “had seen them” when in fact they should have been “secure from observation.”   Likewise, Charlotte carefully verifies what is at first only an impression of “something White & Womanish,” which she then confirms is “very decidedly” Clara Brereton.  As if to further confirm her interpretation, Charlotte steps forward to the pales, pinpointing Clara’s geographical location with remarkable specificity:  “seated, not far before her, at the foot of the bank which sloped down from the outside of the Paling & which a narrow Path seemed to skirt along.” 

However, despite her observational care, Charlotte may be making a fundamental interpretive error in the second scene.  This time she does not pause to ask whether Clara is receiving Sir Edward’s attentions favorably, despite the fact that there is no clear evidence for Clara’s complicity.  Certainly it seems a violation of Regency mores that Clara Brereton meets Sir Edward in private.  Nonetheless, she “might not have been able to prevent” this second interview any more than she could have prevented the first.  Clara’s “calm” demeanor should at least suggest that this may not be a meeting of secret lovers.  In addition, Charlotte’s romantic phrasing, “Pales never crossed by the foot of man,” suggests that she has reverted to the mindset of a reader whose interpretations are being controlled by generic conventions rather than careful observation. 

It is important to note that at this point in the novel, Charlotte does not have prior knowledge about Sir Edward’s intended seduction, but the reader does, since that intention has previously been exposed by the narrator.  Indeed, it is possible that one reason for the early revelation of Sir Edward’s seduction plot may be part of an engineered diversion to subliminally nudge the reader into accepting Charlotte’s hasty rush to judgment.  Knowing what we know, we are primed to make the same interpretive leap that Charlotte makes as soon as she realizes that she is witnessing a private “conversation.”  The text emphasizes her instinctual reaction as an abrupt physical halt that occurs before thought:  she “instantly felt she had nothing to do but to step back again, & say not a word.”  The Sanditon manuscript reveals that Austen removed the word “that” after the word “felt,” subtly heightening the sense of non-verbal, non-cognitive immediacy. 

sanditon snippet

Sanditon Manuscript
(Click here to see a larger version.)

Moreover, the now obsolete identification of the word “conversation” with “intercourse” (still in use today in the legal phrase “criminal conversation,” which denotes unlawful sexual intercourse) was not yet obsolete in 1817.  If “Privacy was certainly their object,” a male and female talking closely together in what is designed to be a private location would naturally suggest assumptions that might erode the capacity for critical detachment. 

Charlotte’s response in this second passage is handled with a high degree of narrative sophistication that also warrants readerly caution.  As soon as Charlotte reacts without thought, she “is struck unfavourably.”  A hasty reader might not realize however, that the text never specifies the content of that reaction.  At this precise moment, a dash encourages an unwary reader to rush over the punctuated cliff into a judgment that the text never affirms.  Likewise, the next sentence records a hasty assumption:  Clara’s “was a situation which must not be judged with severity.”  By placing the emphasis on the degree of judgment (i.e., it must be judged, but let us not be too severe), the text further invites the assumption that Clara’s situation is being judged.  In contrast, Charlotte’s relief at Mrs. Parker’s obliviousness suggests an almost protective attitude toward Clara.  Likewise, her later quip about the lovers being “ill-used” veers closer to amusement than moral judgment.  Whether one finds this situation—Charlotte’s reaction to it—amusing or melancholy depends on whether satire or morality might prevail. 

The text toys further with rapid alteration from morality to amusement when the narrator interrupts with the phrase “Among other points of moralising reflection” (426<–27).  This is a very clever faux segue, since no moralizing reflection has been provided.  Is the narrator here archly drawing attention to Charlotte’s absence of moral reflection?  If so, the humor turns on Regency standards that perhaps Charlotte should have been upholding.  The clever phrasing, however, skirts the issue, implying both that Charlotte has and has not been engaged in points of moralizing reflection. 

Yet another narrative sleight of hand catalyzed by this faux segue is the blurred distinction between the narrator’s judgment and Charlotte’s.  Having stated that moralizing reflections are occurring, the narrator then quickly disappears back into free indirect discourse, making the distinction between Charlotte and the narrator quite difficult to detect.  The figure below details this fluid shift. 

narration types

Sanditon Elision

The quick elision in this passage between direct narration, indirect discourse, and free indirect discourse3 seems to suggest that Charlotte and the narrator are in agreement.  In fact, however, in Regency parlance the narrator’s more ambiguous term, “Tete a Tete,” could denote either platonic or amatory conversation (OED).  The narrator’s term thus allows a neutral non-judgmental interpretation in contrast to Charlotte’s perhaps too quick assumption that she is observing a “stolen Interview” between “secret Lovers.” 

It is worth noting that Austen’s earlier novels employ the phrase “tête-à-tête” in both of its early nineteenth-century usages.  For example, when Emma observes Harriet Smith and Mr. Knightley in close conversation on the grounds of Donwell Abbey, “It was an odd tête-à-tête; but she was glad to see it” (360).  At this moment, Emma understands Mr. Knightley’s conversation with Harriot as platonic.  Ironically, Emma will later second-guess this interpretation after Harriet confesses that she has reason to believe Mr. Knightley is growing very fond of her.  Still later the tête-à-tête term pivots back to its original position, when Emma decides to limit her contact with Harriet.  At that point, she “objected only to a tête-à-tête” with Harriet (417).  In this last example, Austen is again using the term in its non-connotative sense.  Emma thus records an earlier instance of Austen’s pivoting an interpretation around this particular phrase in a passage designed to misdirect readerly interpretation. 

Further evidence that Sanditon is deliberately manipulating the reader’s ability to assess Charlotte’s interpretation occurs immediately after Sir Edward’s seduction scheme when the narrator directly reports that Clara “had not the least intention of being seduced” (405).  Readers who do not remember that statement are more likely to be guided by Charlotte’s interpretation than readers who do.  Readers who remember the earlier statement, however, might still experience an unsettling moment of cognitive dissonance.  Does Clara’s private interview mean that she has changed her mind about Sir Edward? 

The passage in which the text reveals that Clara has no intention of being seduced also provides further ambiguous information.  It states that Clara intends to bear with Sir Edward “patiently enough to confirm the sort of attachment which her personal Charms had raised” (405).  This statement obfuscates what it pretends to clarify.  Whose attachment is being confirmed?  Clara’s own?  Sir Edward’s?  If the former, Clara’s nature is romantic, since she hopes to fall in love with the man who seems to be falling in love with her.  If the latter, Clara may be a younger version of Mrs. Clay (sans freckles).  The phrase “sort of attachment” forces a reader to choose whether satire or amusement will prevail by choosing what type of “conversation” Charlotte is observing in the mist beyond the pales.  This is a choice that those sufficiently well read in Austen’s novels are commonly called upon to make.  In Pride and Prejudice, for example, when Elizabeth describes to Mrs. Gardiner the various signs of Mr. Bingley’s attachment to Jane Bennet, Elizabeth is certain his “‘general incivility’” must be interpreted as “‘the very essence of love’” (141).  Mrs. Gardiner replies with regretful cynicism, “‘Oh, yes!—Of that kind of love which I suppose him to have felt.’”  The sort of attachment that Bingley experiences is the central interpretive question in this discussion, but it reaches impasse because the same set of facts can be reasonably interpreted in two different ways.  The future must explain Bingley further, just as the ending of Sanditon would have (presumably) resolved its interpretive puzzles. 

Again and again, Sanditon creates problems of interpretation for the reader that require suspension of judgment.  As Mr. Parker reminds Charlotte, “‘we think differently, we now & then, see things differently,’” and stories “‘must be listened to with Caution.’”  He tells Charlotte to “‘judge for yourself’” (376).  Is Sanditon first inviting and then exploiting the reader’s trust of the otherwise sober-minded and observant Charlotte?4  Juliet McMaster notes that Emma’s “critical perception is sharp.  But as we know, it is her fatal flaw to interpret according to her wishes” (“The Critics” 31).  Sanditon seems to be taking this distinction between interpretation and perception a step further by unsettling or otherwise rendering ambiguous the normal novelistic conventions that help readers control which perception “might prevail.” 

From her earliest juvenilia to Sanditon, Austen’s texts reveal an intense interest in the type of cognitive processing errors human beings routinely make when allowing interpretations to be controlled (i.e., seduced) by unexamined assumptions, desires, and familiar narrative conventions.  By the end of Emma, for example, the eponymous heroine must re-narrate her entire relationship to Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, Harriet Smith, and, of course, Mr. Knightley.  Later she tells Mr. Knightley that her mistake is perhaps even less excusable in “‘one who sets up as I do for Understanding’” (427). 

In a very similar moment in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth also castigates herself for having prided herself on her “‘discernment’” (208).  Likewise, Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland is embarrassed to re-read her naive gothic illusions through Henry Tilney’s eyes: 

The visions of romance were over.  Catherine was completely awakened.  Henry’s address . . . had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done.  Most grievously was she humbled.  (199) 

The Northanger Abbey example is useful because it makes explicit the fact that the narratives being replaced are not just any narratives:  they are paradigm shifting genre replacements.  Catherine has to give up extravagant gothic illusions for uncomfortable realities.  Emma must give up asexual romance fantasies, in which she is a matchmaker extraordinaire, for a reality that encompasses her own lack of control over amatory feelings in herself and others.  Important in all these examples is the fact that once the first genre loses its privileged place, the exact same set of facts can lead to very different interpretations. 

Virginia Woolf astutely notices that it is difficult to catch Austen “in the act of greatness.”  In the same review she predicts that if Austen had continued writing longer, she would have trusted “more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters” (206).  If Sanditon is another act of greatness in the making, it may be that its greatness does not lie where the Moderns were wont to search.  Instead, Sanditon’s greatness might lie in its almost Post-Modern interest in the power of genre to shape perception.  By announcing Sir Edward’s nefarious intentions ahead of time, Sanditon subtly preconditions the reader to accept Charlotte’s non-objective assessment that she is witnessing a stolen interview between secret lovers.  Ultimately, narrative seduction, not physical seduction, may be Sanditon’s primary preoccupation.  That preoccupation would explain why Sanditon’s diametrically opposed central characters both define themselves in terms of novels.  Charlotte is determined not to repeat the eponymous Camilla’s mistakes (390), while Sir Edward is determined to repeat Lovelace’s.  Although Charlotte is not interested in experiencing Camilla’s “Distress,” her mistakes may take a form she does not expect.  For example, if Sir Edward’s “anxious” glances (395) and consistent attention to Clara Brereton turn out to be motivated more by love than he himself realizes, then Sanditon’s re-readers who assume characters are correct in their own self-assessments may still have much to learn about what it means to become sufficiently well read in novels (and in life).  Although they seem diametrically opposed, in fact Charlotte and Sir Edward both assume that “Poor Miss Brereton” is a victim, which may mean they are both likely to be incorrect.  She may be this novel’s Mrs. Clay, or Jane Fairfax, or a very different character altogether.  For Sanditon, being “sufficiently well-read in Novels” requires not only significant powers of observation and the ability to suspend judgment, but also the ability to let a story shape itself despite generic and moral conventions. 

All of Austen’s earlier texts are invested in training readers in how to read well.5  One example from Emma is revelatory.  Emma flirts with finding just such a “something between” morality and satire when she struggles to interpret Frank Churchill’s impulsive jaunt to London to have his hair cut.  Mr. Weston reacts with amusement, fondly calling Frank a “coxcomb” (205).  In contrast, Mrs. Weston “did not like it” and forestalls her negative response by “passing it over as quickly as possible.”  Mr. Weston’s amusement and Mrs. Weston’s disapproval both fail to catch the deeper meaning that Emma senses but cannot articulate.  She puzzles for two chapters.  At first she considers his behavior a “little blot” on his character (205), but later she muses, “‘I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.  Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.—It depends upon the character of those who handle it’” (212).  Here, Emma is encouraging the reader to break clichéd moral judgments and conventional reactions in favor of a more nuanced reading of character.  True to form, Emma is both right and wrong at this moment in the novel.  First-time readers will read this passage very differently from re-readers, but in this instance both Emma’s “‘vain spirit’” and her “‘serious spirit’” (330) agree that there is more going on than hasty interpretation might imply. 

Likewise, both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice break convention to tell stories that rely deeply on the presence of a seduction plot but that are not defined by conventional amatory plot trajectories familiar to Austen’s first readers.  Sanditon might be involved in a similar experiment for its readers and re-readers.  Indeed, perhaps its bold foregrounding of its comic-seduction plot, its generic disjunctions, its wry narrator, its numerous reversals of interpretation, and its keen focus on the vexed relationship between satire and morality are all key to catching Austen in yet another novelistic act of greatness that rewards readers for re-reading with caution.


The Sanditon image is from Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts: A Digital Edition, edited by Kathryn Sutherland (2010), available at http://www.janeausten.ac.uk.  The image is reproduced with the Permission of King’s College, Cambridge.  


1Although Sense and Sensibility’s Lucy Steele and John Willoughby do reveal some insights about their secret attachments, Sense and Sensibility does not grant the reader direct access to their interior thoughts.  Lady Susan, of course, does reveal its comic seduction plot directly and early.  Although unpublished during Austen’s lifetime, Lady Susan may be Sanditon’s most direct precursor.  Indeed, Lady Susan herself is much more “in the line of the Lovelaces” than Sir Edward promises to become. 

2Here again, Sanditon bears affinity with Lady Susan, which blends seduction, comedy, and cruelty. 

3The elision in this passage is so fluid that it is not as easy to demarcate which elements are direct, indirect, and/or free indirect discourse as the above chart might suggest.  The purpose of the chart is to indicate that all three forms are in fluid play.  The distinctions between indirect discourse and free indirect discourse are often difficult to determine, a fact that Austen here seems to be exploiting with narrative mastery.  What is clear is that by the end of the passage (highlighted in blue), Austen is employing a form of free indirect discourse that narrative theorist Gérard Genette has helpfully named “focalization” to indicate that the narrative is being directly channeled or “focused” through the character’s point of view without narrator mediation.  Genette distinguishes between “fixed” focalization, in which the narrative rarely leaves a character’s point of view (e.g., the reader rarely leaves Emma’s POV in Emma), and other forms of focalization, including “external focalization,” in which the reader is “not allowed to know” the character’s thoughts and feelings (189–90).  In the passage discussed above, Austen’s fluid mixture of direct and indirect discourse may be deliberately toying with the reader’s ability to determine the type of focalization in order to deliberately mislead, or otherwise confuse, the reader. 

4It is worth noting that from the moment Charlotte notices “something White & Womanish” she is intensely focused on identifying “Miss B—.”  Although both the male and female figures are presumably obscured by the same mist, not a single one of Charlotte’s observations describes Sir Edward.  If the other figure in this scene is not Sir Edward after all, that discrepancy would become apparent only upon a re-reading. 

5For a powerful close reading of this dynamic, see Patricia Meyer Spacks’s introduction to Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.
  • _____.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933–1969.
  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward.  A Memoir of Jane Austen.  1870.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford, Clarendon, 1967.
  • Devaull-Robichaud, Natalie.  “She Saw Indeed”: Perception and Speculation in Sanditon.”  Persuasions On-Line 38.2 (2018).
  • Genette, Gérard.  Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method.  Trans. Jane E. Lewin.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
  • McMaster, Juliet.  “The Critics of Talk in Emma.”  Persuasions 38 (2016): 30–55.
  • _____.  “The Watchers of Sanditon.”  Persuasions 19 (1997): 149–59.
  • Mudrick, Marvin.  Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery.  Princeton: PUP, 1952.
  • Mullan, John.  What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • Southam, B. C.  Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts.  Oxford: OUP, 1964.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer, ed.  Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010.
  • Sutherland, Kathryn.  Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts: A Digital Edition.  2010.  http://www.janeausten.ac.uk
  • Swift, Jonathan.  “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift.”  The Poems of Jonathan Swift.  Ed. Harold Williams.  2nd ed.  Vol 2.  Oxford: OUP, 1958.  551–72.
  • Woolf, Virginia.  The Common Reader.  First Series.  New York: Harcourt, 1925.
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