Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Persuasions On-Line ›   |   Volume 38 No. 2 ›   |   Afterword


In this special issue—as in the conference from which it emerged—there is much mention of the critical history of Sanditon.  In some ways this history is as comic as the novel fragment itself.  The embarrassment of the Austen family at what they saw as a sad project of failing energies was superseded by the generic distaste of early editors and readers such as R. W. Chapman and E. M. Forster, who imposed on the work their clear ideas of what the English novel and Jane Austen’s fiction should be.  Then, more recently, came the downright and energetic hatred of later critics such as D. A. Miller, who saw the fragment as the death of the “stylothete,” the failure not just of content and narrative art but of Austen’s style itself. 

I’ve always regarded Jane Austen as a great writer and a great editor and have no doubt that she’d not finished with Sanditon, even the part of it we have—any more than she had with those texts not submitted for publication before her death, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.  A woman who wrote and rewrote even as she wrote, then went back again—recycling not only ideas and characters but words—wouldn’t necessarily have left even a shifting fragment alone.  But we must make the best of Sanditon as it’s come to us, seeing in its comedy an assault on speculation and capitalism, or an embrace of freshness and sparkle, depending on viewpoint, political leaning, or critical stance.  The fragment is here with us as much as the finished novels, to delight and provoke, while letting itself be expanded and illustrated with research on all its elements from sequels to bathing machines and south-coast seaweed. 

These essays provide a wonderful and eye-opening addition to the critical work on Sanditon, as well as introducing us to the fabulous world of adaptations, romances, and the health industry, the wheels within wheels of Diana Parker.  As befits a fragment, as we have increasingly been calling what the family termed “The Last Work,” we end with questions and partial answers.  Taken together, the papers are critical, speculative, biographical, and historical, touching on things in the end unknowable without the discovery of the Jane Austen diaries in a Chawton attic and even then . . . .  

Collectively we puzzle over the schizophrenic author and her multi-faceted personality, on one side the woman who seemed to be developing fiction towards psychological realism and modernist experimentation in Virginia Woolf’s reflective style, and on the other the perpetual adolescent who enjoyed the boisterous and freaky, displaying in this final prose work what she’d already shown as a pre-pubescent child in one of her first, an unfinished “Mystery.”  Are the two authors at odds or in useful creative dialogue, or are they one and the same?  Are we modern readers too generically boxed in to bring together the farcical and the reflective in a single text from a writer universally praised for her realistic comedy of manners?  There are in this issue useful discussions of caricature, the sublime, and the need (or not) for believability in characters to help us on our way—but in the end I suspect we don’t know.  How can we?  Are we even sure of those parameters that should circumscribe the place where criticism can go?  Do we have any idea what this protean author was doing in Sanditon with the novel form?  As Margaret Case asks provocatively, does its greatest realism lie in its questioning of the role prediction plays in narrative fiction? 

Chapman’s initial, staid printing of the work in 1925 has inadvertently made Sanditon appear first and foremost a published work.  Michelle Levy puts forward the intriguing idea that, with two almost finished novels on her shelf, Jane Austen may not have been thinking of print publication at all when she wrote this novel of speculation and collapsing capitalism.  Instead, she may have envisaged an audience of inevitably knowing friends and family, people who have just lived through the same financial disasters as have so challenged and upset herself.  Here’s where Emma Clery, using the extraordinary, banking brother Henry as focus, comes in.  She shifts beneath us the fine hard sand of Sanditon on which we thought we’d safely erected our critical deckchairs, arguing that the careful country landowner up his potholed Sussex lane is not at all what many of us thought him to be, and that the ebulliently absurd speculating Parkers by the seaside have a joy not necessarily available among the two or three families in their stagnant rural pond. 

In Clery’s essay and in so many others in the issue, much is made of the moment of Sanditon, that post-Waterloo time when the country was suffering the malady of peace:  depression and inflation, and renewed continental tourism.  Those first readers knew of the rise and fall of English sea resorts during these years.  They also knew the social meaning of tea-drinking with its association with class and national identity.  Both topics are discussed here.  But what do we do critically when we focus on particular aspects, when we rightly remind ourselves that tea is from China and India, that the chilly, tender Miss Lambe is a mulatto, and that the colony of Antigua in Mansfield Park runs on slave labor?  Are we trying to make Jane Austen say what we politically want or to discover what might have been in the minds of a normally culturally aware reader in 1817?  Perhaps even more than Jane Austen herself, we need Cassandra or Anna Lefroy to walk into the room and give us some clues, perhaps especially Anna, who is so present in Peter Sabor’s essay and in her own continuation of Sanditon.  Or are we more interested in 2017 than 1817 after all? 

Throughout these essays we are given a sense of the author.  Kathryn Sutherland reminds us of how often Austen as a child wrote “Author” and “finis” in her notebooks—the presence of the owner of the hand that wrote is very strong.  The critical fashion for material culture has been with us now for many years and here, in a fragment that is also an object, our imagination is engaged with the thing, with that little notebook at King’s College that Kathryn brought so strikingly before our eyes, the writing paper folded, cut, and stitched and given no margins.  This physiognomy of the draft page is a very strong image.  It’s not as gothic as Keats holding out his living hand from the icy tomb to posterity but, in its way, as shocking.  We contemplate too the blank notebook pages, so oddly left by this thriftiest and condensed of writers—celebrated for what she doesn’t do as much as for what she does—and we contemplate the idea that they served as padding for the invalid hand, which would have been writing now no longer at the celebrated writing slope but propped up in bed. 

The idea of author, in or out of bed, is involved in and modifies the image that, until recently, Austen criticism found so appealing:  of the sick body making a sick text.  The notion has been that the subject of disease and hypochondria in Sanditon connects poignantly and absurdly with the dying woman (dying in our sight of course, not necessarily hers).  The sick body could not continue the much-celebrated pure style for which Jane Austen was so critically praised.  Sick body made sick mind and an unsubtle, unthinking prose that, even with emendations and comic exaggerations, could not erase the stylistic decadence:  the eroding cliffs of Sanditon became the erosion of genius and the Austen achievement. 

The anxiety that Sanditon caused and is causing began with the Austen family, who saw the text disrupting their literary and domestic romance.  Later it came to disturb the literary historian’s too easy understanding of Austen’s creative progression, developing the realist novel and refining techniques of free indirect speech.  In fact, here in the fragment of Sanditon, as Clara Tuite wittily points out, houses and points of view proliferate, and we critical house-hunters have the spectacle of an incipient country-house novel in search of a country house. 

For all the wit and wisdom of the essays, ultimately we readers can arrive at no secure judgment; we are where we always were, deep inside the conundrum that is Sanditon and indeed Jane Austen.  So we come away from this issue with startling metaphors and images:  the sand and rock, the mist and gauze and thickness of air obscuring the sight, the manuscript pages refusing margins but full of crossings out, so that they become palimpsestic but never give up their secrets.  Perhaps a final and most convincing image is of an equivocating author talking to herself, maybe even nostalgic for an old order she has written herself out of—knowing on her pulse the dangers of an unleashed entrepreneurial spirit in finance as in style.  Personally, I want to stay with the image of the author not lying propped up in bed but, rather, as Miss Diana Parker, that neurotic house-hunter in a new world.

‹ Back to Publication