While many readers have delighted in the comic exuberance of Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last fictional testament, some have expressed disappointment or puzzlement at the outlandish characters and satirical tone. Most notably, E. M. Forster suggested that Austen’s illness and impending death tainted the text so that “the fragment gives the effect of weakness” (176) and “promises little vigour of character” (178). B. C. Southam disputes this disparaging view, arguing instead that “Sanditon is the most vigorous of all Jane Austen’s writing” and the most invested in “the spirit of the age” (102). And John Wiltshire lauds this culminating work as “terrifically animated, and comic, . . . the most amusing, almost, one might say, the most manic text Jane Austen ever composed” (“Sickness and Silliness” 96).
Apparently, some readers were affronted by the gallery of eccentric characters that populate Sanditon. Even Austen’s niece, Anna Lefroy, preferred that these “terrifically animated” characters be toned down (Todd and Bree lxxxii). R. W. Chapman concurred in judging Austen’s satire in the fragment as too harsh, speculating that she would have softened her tone if she had lived to finish the novel (208). According to the textual evidence, however, Austen had no intention of moderating her eccentric characters: the revisions she made to the manuscript are in the direction of “more extravagant specificity,” as Kathryn Sutherland and other manuscript scholars have pointed out (Sutherland 183; Southam 130; Todd and Bree lxxxii–lxxxiii). Wiltshire notes that bewildered readers have sometimes used biographical explanations “to deflect the disconcerting quality of [Sanditon’s] comedy” (Jane Austen and the Body 209), suggesting that the “manic” comic tone of the fragment is provocative and unsettling to those who want to perpetuate a more decorous myth of Divine Jane.
Along with some critics’ concerns about the comic characters and Sanditon’s revitalization of the absurdist comedy of the juvenilia, Janet Todd and Linda Bree suggest that Austen turns away from further development of the psychological realism that she advanced in her later novels (lxxxix). Such critiques imply a devaluation of comedy as a less exalted genre or narratorial perspective than domestic realism, which ostensibly deals more seriously with human relationships and their attendant difficulties and rewards. While all Austen’s novels come under the umbrella of romantic comedy, one could say that in the completed novels comedy is subordinated to the working out of the romantic plot, whereas in the twelve chapters that comprise Sanditon, the heroine and putative hero (Sidney Parker) and their possible romance provide a nascent backdrop or sketchy background for the antics of the comic characters who surge to the forefront of the action.1
How does Austen render her characters comic? What are the common qualities of the hypochondriacs and schemers of Sanditon as well as many of our foolish favorites in other novels, such as Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Palmer, Mary Musgrove, and Sir Walter Elliot? In the words of Mr. Parker, who belittles his fellow speculators in beach property at other spots on the coast, they may all be “‘dupes of their own fallacious calculations’” (143); that is, they all suffer from grandiose illusions about their own importance and consequence in the world and persistently distort reality to serve their narcissistic agendas. With his indictment of other aspiring developers, Mr. Parker unconsciously implicates himself as well. Plato hypothesized that we laugh at those who overestimate their “moral and intellectual equipment” and are therefore deluded about their true natures and abilities. Instead of heeding the advice of the Oracle of Dephi, they go the opposite route by “in no way knowing [themselves]” (48). Characters who exhibit so little self-knowledge inspire our laughter and enable us to enjoy a feeling of superiority because of their follies.2
In Austen’s work, the self-inflated, self-deluded character type goes back as far as the juvenilia, where characters who initially represent themselves as paragons express or conduct themselves in ways that completely contradict and undercut their professed “superior” qualities and render them absurd. For example, Laura in “Love and Freindship” insists her conduct has been faultless (135) after recounting a history plagued by her foolish blunders. In “The Three Sisters,” Mary Stanhope frivolously changes her mind several times about accepting the proposal of Mr. Watts, whereupon her exasperated mother declares, “‘You are the strangest Girl in the World Mary. What you say one moment, you unsay the next’” (76). In “Lesley Castle” Margaret Lesley writes to a friend all the ways she and her sister, Matilda, are beautiful and accomplished, then crowns her litany of self-love with the proclamation that “‘the greatest of our Perfections is, that we are entirely insensible of them ourselves’” (144). Much of Austen’s comedy seems to stem from clueless characters whose obtuseness about their own abilities and motivations clashes startlingly with the contextual evidence provided by the narrative. Less common are the characters, such as Miss Bates in Emma and Mrs. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility, who indicate some awareness of their inadequacies but compensate by brightly displaying these faults through incessant chatter and flattery.
From the perspective of the pragmatic Heywood family, Mr. Parker is an “enthusiast” (146), someone who has “a sanguine turn of mind, with more imagination than judgement” (148). Problems of the imagination, particularly the self-indulgent inflation of reality, afflict quite a few of Austen’s characters, even heroines such as Catherine Morland and Emma Woodhouse. In Sanditon, however, some characters’ imaginations are grotesquely overwrought to the point of provoking ridicule. Unlike Catherine and Emma, who gain insight and experience so that they are able to align their imaginative notions with more mundane realities, the Sanditon characters remain comically unenlightened when the novel leaves off. Sir Edward Denham, for example, continues to aspire to burn with passion in his pursuit of women, like his aptly named hero, Robert Burns. Ironically, given the purported healing properties of Sanditon extolled by Mr. Parker, the imaginations of the most enthusiastic characters, like Sir Edward and Diana Parker, seem to be inflamed or diseased, so much more intense and disproportionate are their fantasies to more rational preoccupations. The healthful claims of the resort are undercut as the environment perversely seems to exacerbate characters’ imaginative maladies.
As Austen shows, extravagant self-promotion can result in unintentional self-parody, since characters’ rhetoric may promise effects that exceed the bounds of probability so that their attempts at persuasion logically implode. In the first-century treatise Peri Hypsous, or “On the Sublime,” Longinus warns against rhetorical effects that aspire to sublimity but fall short and achieve “the reverse of their aim” (49).3 In striving for elevation and transport, an orator or writer might err by employing inflated and swollen rhetoric, i.e., “tasteless tumidity” (47), affected, empty passion, or by pursuing the “fashionable craze of the day” (53). I suggest that Austen creates comic effects and characters in Sanditon by endowing characters’ speech and actions with spurious sublime gestures that reveal the absurdity of their narcissistic claims. In their attempts to elevate themselves above others, Mr. Parker, Diana, Susan and Arthur Parker, Lady Denham, and Sir Edward Denham inadvertently create the inverse of their desired effect, that is, the false or comic sublime.
Mr. Parker and Lady Denham have “praised and puffed” (146) up the fledgling Sanditon in order to profit from the “fashionable craze of the day” for seaside resorts. Mr. Parker vigorously defends bathing resorts, particularly Sanditon, against the criticism of Mr. Heywood that “‘our coast is too full of them altogether’” (143). Mr. Parker objects: Sanditon is “‘the favourite spot of all that are to be found along the coast of Sussex;—the most favored by Nature, and promising to be the most chosen by man’” (142). His defense relies on hyperbole and misplaced passion, and thus his unmoderated enthusiasm undercuts the validity of his promotional rant. Other characters also strive to lift themselves in others’ eyes by recommending or adopting “fashionable craze[s] of the day.” Diana and Susan Parker are proud of seeking popular quack remedies for their ailments and flouting the advice of the established “‘medical tribe’” (163). And Sir Edward Denham reads fashionable as well as the “most approved” writers, primarily to garner “hard words and involved sentences” (183) that he can use to make his seductive language “‘more fraught with the deep sublime’” (175). As the narrator comments later on the arrival of the aspiring fashion plates, the Miss Beauforts, “A little novelty has a great effect in so small a place” (203). Austen generates plentiful opportunities for characters and readers to debunk or ridicule other characters’ trendy aspirations—and to enjoy the comic sublime. As Thomas Hobbes noted, “whatsoever it be that moveth laughter, it must be new and unexpected” (457). We are surprised and amused at characters’ passionate rebuttals of the limits of reality and their embrace of their own exceptionalism.
In contrast to the vivid peculiarities of these characters, the heroine, Charlotte Heywood, is a sensible, educated young woman from a rural hamlet, who is gaining experience in the greater world during her visit with the Parkers. As Charlotte meets each eccentric character in Sanditon, she is often “astonished” and bewildered at their pronouncements and behavior and struggles to account for their personalities based on the dictates of common-sense and rationality. Charlotte plays more of an observer role as the gallery of self-inflated imaginists takes center stage in the text. As John Wiltshire has noted, readers who are also meeting these characters for the first time may naturally align themselves with Charlotte’s perspective (“Sickness and Silliness” 97). Her amused reactions find cause in Hobbes’s theory of the origins and process of laughter: when we are confronted with the “new and unexpected,” we may feel initially befuddled, but if we come to see the incongruity or exaggerated aspects of the situation or speech, our initial confusion is followed by laughter. According to Hobbes, “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” (458). The three-stage process of laughter begins with one’s attraction to a novelty that may spark surprise and/or confusion; it is followed by one’s recognizing the ridiculous aspects of the situation and then by enjoying one’s own superiority to the situation or speaker. This process is surprisingly akin to Immanuel Kant’s analytic of the sublime, another three-stage process: firstly awe, where one is astonished by what one sees or experiences; secondly, resistance, prompted by the self-preserving faculty and the struggle between reason and imagination to overcome confusion and grasp the situation; and thirdly, establishing one’s superiority over what one had initially found daunting and feeling the elevation of sublime pleasure at the self-preserving outcome of the struggle (Kant 105–14). As Plato argues, the “admixture” of pleasure and malice in laughing at others produces a pleasure that triumphs over feelings of distress (50).
After Charlotte first meets Sir Edward, she quickly learns that one of his favorite topics is the sublime. In speaking of the sea and seashore, he “ran with energy through all the usual phrases employed in praise of their sublimity, and descriptive of the undescribable emotions they excite in the mind of sensibility” (174). From the references in Sanditon, we infer that Austen was well-acquainted with Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), which she may have found in her brother Edward Knight’s library.4 Burke cites Longinus; however, he does not dwell on the rhetorical sublime but rather on the content of the sublime experience. The sublime was a popular topic among philosophers, theologians, and poets of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the William Smith translation of Longinus in 1739 influenced English writers to associate the sublime with passion and emotional intensity, as well as with the astonishing and marvelous (Boulton xliii–xliv).5 Eighteenth-century commentators extended the analysis of the sublime beyond poetry and oratory to lived, as well as literary, aesthetic experience.
More than any other character she meets, Charlotte revises her opinion of Sir Edward the most drastically. Initially flattered by his attentions to her and his gift of gab, her first impression is that he is a most attractive young man. But she soon discerns that he is really interested in another young woman, Clara Brereton, the niece of Lady Denham, and may be trying to provoke Clara’s jealousy by his attentions to Charlotte. Charlotte decides that deciphering his true character “required longer observation” (174), but in their next conversation she is taken aback when he launches into a florid, lofty panegyric to nature and poetry.
Despite his high-flown rhetoric, Sir Edward’s defense of Burns as a true lover and man of genius, as well as the “number of his quotations, and the bewilderment of some of his sentences” lead Charlotte to diagnose him as not a genuine “man of feeling” (174) but someone without a “very clear brain” (177)―that is, a silly, harmless, rather laughable man. The narrator later assures us, however, that Sir Edward’s performance is of a piece with his goal of becoming a great seducer, modelling himself after the villains of the sentimental novels that he has read voraciously—“‘the novels which . . . display human nature with grandeur’” (182). Certainly his language trades in “tasteless tumidity,” which, according to Longinus, inflates and swells rhetoric to the point that it achieves the opposite of its aim: “puerility” (49). Ironically, Sir Edward condemns the “‘puerile emanations’” (181) that he assigns to the more prosaic novels that do not meet his sentimental standards and suggests that he is instead an “’anti-puerile man’” (182) or sophisticated, worldly reader. According to Longinus, puerility is characterized by language that aims at the elaborate and attractive but that drifts into “the tawdry and affected” and achieves “the direct antithesis of elevation” (49), a fair assessment of Sir Edward’s rhetorical efforts. Another unintended consequence that Longinus cautions against is parenthyrsus, that is, the use of empty passion in inappropriate situations or “immoderate [passion] where moderation is needed” (49). Thus when Sir Edward seeks to make his case that he is an irresistible seducer, Charlotte finds his misplaced rhetorical vehemence to be “wearisome” and risible, even as she is able to keep her countenance.
The primary preoccupation of Sir Edward’s pseudo-philosophical babble, however, is alarming. According to Edmund Burke, sublime pleasure is potentially available only as a product of an astonishing and terrifying experience (57–58). For Sir Edward, the passionate experience of lusting after women leads him to glorify abduction and rape under the aegis of the Sublime; his ideal is “‘man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every opposition of feeling and convenience’” (183), driven by the highest feelings of sublime passion and “‘illimitable ardour’” (176, 182). He tells Charlotte that he prefers novels that demonstrate
“the sublimities of intense feeling—such as exhibit the progress of strong passion from the first germ of incipient susceptibility to the utmost energies of reason half-dethroned,—where we see the strong spark of woman’s captivations elicit such fire in the soul of man as leads him—(though at the risk of some aberration from the strict line of primitive obligations)—to hazard all, dare all, achieve all, to obtain her.” (182)
As Sir Edward sees it, man’s highest calling, the endeavor by which he can attain the highest glory, is preying upon and victimizing women.
Man’s pursuit of woman is also satirized on the grosser material level, with a descent into “earthy dross” (198), in Charlotte’s first meeting with the indolent Arthur Parker, who is moved by her “youth and bloom” (195) to court her with the offering of laboriously prepared cocoa and toast, albeit the labors are primarily for his own enjoyment. Later we learn of Arthur’s “great” physical exertions of sometimes walking an extra one-eighth of a mile out of his way to catch a glimpse of the Miss Beauforts, who often pose before their window. Both Arthur and Sir Edward are silly would-be swains, whose attempts to capture the affections of the women of their choice are ineffectual and ridiculous.
The philosophical rhetoric on the sublime, from Longinus to our own times, is often couched in sexual metaphor. John Dennis’s 1704 description of the sublime experience as “a pleasing rape on the very soul of the reader” (37) is echoed by Thomas Stackhouse (49) and other commentators who describe the ravishing powers of the sublime. This kind of extravagant language suggests a pleasurably masochistic surrender to an overwhelming but bodiless higher and stronger power. Both Burke and Kant in their discourses on the sublime and beautiful distinguish the sexualized experience of struggling with and appreciating the sublime as reserved for the dominant male. Philip Shaw notes that Burke is particularly fond of images of tumescence in his descriptions of terrifying but awe-inspiring sublime scenes—man “swells in contemplation of a power that he has claimed for his own”—whereas feminine beauty is depicted as more “relaxed and enervated” (56). And more recently, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Slavoj Žižek have anatomized the sublime as metaphorical rape (Lyotard 124; Shaw 143–44).
Sir Edward’s sublime ramblings seem to profess that men have an almost divine right to seize and ravage the subjects of their lust. As he assures Charlotte, “‘nor can you, loveliest Miss Heywood—(speaking with an air of deep sentiment) —nor can any woman be a fair judge of what a man may be propelled to say, write, or do, by the sovereign impulses of illimitable ardour’” (176). In other words, women just don’t understand because they are incapable of achieving such a high state of passion. Austen mitigates Sir Edward’s rape fantasies by having the narrator assure us that although he would love to carry Clara away to Tombuctoo, where she would be completely at his mercy, “the expence alas! of measures in that masterly stile was ill-suited to his purse, and prudence obliged him to prefer the quietest sort of ruin and disgrace for the object of his affections, to the more renowned” (184–85). The narrator also assures us that Clara sees through him, seemingly protected by her knowledge of his character.
According to Longinus, men are prone to indulging their emotions and giving way to extreme feeling unjustified by the realities of the situation:
For men are often carried away, as if by intoxication, into displays of emotion which are not caused by the nature of the subject, but are purely personal and wearisome. In consequence they seem to hearers who are in no wise affected, to act in an ungainly way. And no wonder; for they are beside themselves, while their hearers are not. (49)
In the two scenes that showcase Sir Edward’s verbal promiscuity, Austen lampoons over-the-top, compensatory strategies that mask masculine sexual and intellectual inadequacies. By presenting Sir Edward in full-throated performance as he extols the sexual sublime, Austen’s satire effectively ridicules and deflates masculine privilege and the rights men claim over women’s bodies. Implicated are the sentimental novel and the cult of sensibility, which put a premium on intense feeling. Such unregulated feeling fuels the imagination’s spurious aspirations to sublimity.
Is hypochondria a form of sublimity perhaps induced by fear and awe of one’s body? According to Crabb’s eighteenth-century definition, a hypochondriac believes that her health is in such a serious condition “that [s]he is threatened with death” (426). The fear of death and the reckoning with one’s mortality are serious issues that Austen, even as she suffered from ill health, comically inflated in the imaginations of her “sickly” characters, who, like Sir Edward, suffer from an excess of sensibility.6 How does the schemata of the comic sublime correspond to aspects of the hypochondria that afflicts at least three of the Parker siblings, “a family of imagination and quick feelings” (192)? In a letter to her brother Diana Parker is heedlessly tumid, or hyperbolic: making great claims for herself and her sister, Susan, suggesting that they exist without food or sleep and enthusiastically endure extreme measures for the sake of health, such as regular treatment with leeches and having three teeth yanked out to treat a headache. Yet before reading the letter, Mr. Parker tells Charlotte that Diana is “‘the most active, friendly, warm-hearted being in existence’” (162). The sisters raise themselves above people who accept the limitations of their bodies by their manic energy and extreme efforts to attain perfect health. A few days after Diana declares her certainty that the sea air will be the death of her, she abruptly materializes with Susan and Arthur at Sanditon. The sisters aggrandize their struggles with ailments and the glory they achieve in overcoming those ailments to be of service to “‘helpless invalides’” (188) like themselves. Technically, their efforts to inflate their labors and self-importance are similar to the internal struggles that characterize the sublime experience.
Even more ridiculous or puerile than Diana’s fantastic health claims is Arthur Parker’s passionate avowal to Charlotte that drinking green tea takes away the use of his left side: “‘It sounds almost incredible—but it has happened to me so often that I cannot doubt it.—The use of my right side is entirely taken away for several hours!’” (199). Not only does Arthur greatly exaggerate the effect of green tea on his constitution but he backs up his claim with inappropriate passion. Vehemently intent on establishing his unique personal reaction to green tea, he seems to be trying to impress Charlotte but instead comes across as nearly hysterical. Like Emma Woodhouse, Charlotte is a young woman in excellent health and not particularly sympathetic to what she sees as Arthur’s malingering.
Charlotte’s meetings with her new acquaintances seem to follow a pattern outlined in Hobbes’s theory of laughter: a character may initially startle Charlotte by thwarting her expectations of normality and/or propriety with hyperbolic claims and behavior; she then learns more about her new acquaintance, culminating in a partial comprehension that re-establishes her own normality and good sense; the result is a self-preserving amusement at the follies she hears and witnesses. Longinus, Dennis, Burke, and other early theoreticians seemed to agree on a basic vocabulary of the sublime experience, starting with surprise and astonishment, followed by ravishment and transport. More than once Charlotte is “astonished” by a character’s words and/or behavior: early in her first conversation with Sir Edward, she is staggered by his piling-up of faux sublime quotations and phrases and is bewildered as to his true character. But after listening to his pretentious nonsense for awhile, she gains insight into his character and quietly exults in her superiority to such a fatuous man. In the case of Diana, Charlotte is “‘astonished’” by the “‘cheerful style’” (165) of a letter that details a disturbing account of affliction and suffering. When she meets the famously debilitated Diana in the flesh, and the surprisingly robust woman recounts her strenuous morning efforts, Charlotte is again shocked and thinks to herself, “‘Unaccountable officiousness!—Activity run mad!’” (189). Not until she has time to reflect is Charlotte able to reconcile the comic incongruity between Diana’s words and her actions and recognize that most of the so-called disorders of the two sisters arise from “the love of distinction”: “the glory of doing more than anybody else, had [its] share in every exertion of benevolence—and there was vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured” (192).
When she first meets Arthur, she is “astonished” by the incongruity of his actual appearance with her expectations of “a very puny, delicate-looking young man,” as befits someone with a reputation as an invalid. Instead the imposing Arthur is tall, “broad made and lusty” (193). Charlotte “could hardly contain herself” (198) as she watches him sneak in great dabs of butter on his toast just before he puts it in his mouth to circumvent the disapproval of his abstemious sisters. As she listens to his account of a nervous condition that requires unseasonable fires and lots of wine, “[s]he kept her countenance” (196), but when he dares her to guess what the effect of green tea might be on his constitution, Charlotte, who, we assume, is smiling inwardly, goes along with what she sees as the absurdity of his complaints, “meaning to overthrow his attempts at surprise, by the grandeur of her own conceptions”: “‘Keep you awake perhaps all night’” (199). But this hazard falls far short of Arthur’s own grand conception. Although Charlotte is amazed again by his remarkable claim that green tea takes away the use of his right side, she quickly recovers her equanimity and coolly manages to keep her countenance while rejoicing in the superiority of her own mind to Arthur’s absurd fancies.
Charlotte is amused by the astonishing behavior of some of her new friends, but she does not allow herself the luxury of laughing aloud at their comic antics. To do so would be indecorous and improper for a young gentlewoman brought up to treat others in a civil manner. But Charlotte’s restraint need not inhibit our own laughter. With Sanditon, perhaps more than with any other Austen text, we have the opportunity to revel in the comic sublime and delight in our reading experience.
1By the end of the twelfth chapter of the fragment, the ostensible heroine, Charlotte Heyward, has not yet begun a promising romance. Her most likely swain, Sidney Parker, does not appear on the scene until the last few pages. In all the completed novels, however, the heroine is acquainted with her future husband very early on, and the subsequent focus of the plot follows the development of the central romance.
3In an article on Horace Walpole’s parody of the sublime in Castle of Otranto, “Sublime Drag: Supernatural Masculinity in Gothic Fiction,” I analyze how Walpole overturns Longinus’s prescriptions for achieving sublime effects.
5The first English translation of Longinus was by John Hill in 1652, “but it was not until 1698 (after Boileau’s French translation in 1674) that an English translator used the term “sublime” in the title of Longinus’s work. . . . [I]t was only after Boileau’s translation that the word assumed distinctive and increased literary significance” (Boulton xlii). I haven’t come across any definitive evidence that Austen ever read Longinus. The Godmersham Park catalog contains an entry for Jonathan Toup’s 1806 edition of “Longinus,” but it is in Latin and Greek.
6Hypochondriacs were a recurring target of Austen’s satire throughout her writing career. As early as the juvenilia, Austen ridicules a young woman who affects illness because of an overabundance of sensibility in “A beautiful description of the different effects of Sensibility on different Minds,” in which Dr. Dowkins responds to the heroine’s affected sickness with a series of puns.