Monday, 22 February 2016

Jan Austen's 'Sanditon' - Creating a Seaside Resort

The character of Mr. Tom Parker in Sanditon may have been inspired by Sir Richard Hotham, who invested £60,000 in a project which turned Hothamton into today's Bognor. Like Parker, he offered sea-bathing and refinement. Bognor had a hotel, a library, a milliner's shop and a warm bath.

One of the pleasures of the novel is the picture Jane Austen gives us of a developing seaside resort two hundred years ago. There is one short row of smart-looking houses, called The Terrace, with a broad walk in front, aspiring to be the Mall. In this row are the best milliner's shop and the library. A little detached from it are the hotel and billiard room. Here begins the descent to the beach, and to the bathing machines – and this is therefore the favourite spot for beauty and fashion.

Charlotte looks out from the ample Venetian window over the miscellaneous foreground of unfinished buildings, waving linen, the tops of houses, to the sea, dancing and sparkling in sunshine and freshness.
Jane Austen has reservations about such developments. The road accident at the start is a symptom of the impetuous rush towards new values (and away from the old represented by Mr. Heywood). The tension between the two is well presented. Heywood thinks the new sea resorts are Bad things for a country; – sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing.

On the other hand, Jane Austen, always fair-minded, concedes that nostalgic notions of country life sometimes distort the truth.

Noticing the neat-looking end of a cottage, which was seen romantically situated among wood on a high eminence at some little distance, Tom Parker takes it to be the surgeon's house. Heywood explains it is as indifferent a double tenement as any in the parish, and ... my shepherd lives at one end, and three old women at the other.

Jane Austen knows Parker will do some good. She had herself experienced sea-bathing, presumably using a bathing-machine. There is evidence of this in a letter from Lyme to Cassandra in September 1804. The Bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired. We also know (from Fanny Knight's diary) that Jane was in Worthing for a couple of months at the end of 1805 and may have bathed in the sea there – Fanny herself certainly did.

She presents Parker as an admirable and sympathetic man. He is yet another of her creations who, once met, is never forgotten. Rich enough to lead an idle life, he nevertheless chooses to work tirelessly to promote his scheme. He takes pride in Sanditon, which he claims has the finest, purest sea breeze... excellent bathing – fine hard sand ...no mud – no weeds – no slimey rocks.... It is his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse; his occupation, his hope and his futurity. He believes nobody can be really well without spending at least six weeks a year by the sea. Sea air and sea bathing are a match for every disorder, of the stomach, the lungs or the blood; they were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-sceptic, anti-bilious, and anti-rheumatic. Nobody could catch cold by the sea, nobody wanted appetite by the sea, nobody wanted spirits, nobody wanted strength.

Unconcerned that Lady Denham is excessively mean, that his sister Diana is an interfering busybody and that his brother Arthur and both sisters are hypochondriacs, he warm-heartedly thinks well of everybody.

His wife Mary lives in his shadow. Though loyal and supportive, she does not share his enthusiasms. There is a hint of regret when she passes their former house in the country. She remembers it as very comfortable, with such an excellent garden. In their new home by the sea, they are rocked in their bed on stormy winter nights. She is sweet-tempered but lacks the capacity to supply the cooler reflection which her own husband sometimes needed.

Visitors will be attracted, Mr. Parker thinks, if he can advertise the town as having a resident medical man. Ironically, the novel opens with the road accident which is a consequence of this idea. Mr. Parker has taken a wrong turning in his haste to visit the surgeon he wishes to engage. His  coach overturns in the long ascent of a 'very rough lane'.

The only injury is to Tom Parker himself. He has a sprained ankle. The local landowner, Mr. Heywood, a 'well-looking hale, gentlemanlike man, of middle age', haymaking with his workers and family, comes to the rescue and installs the Parkers in his own home for a fortnight while Parker recovers. They become good friends, despite their contrasting opinions.

Heywood represents the old order: he and his wife resist persuasion to visit Sanditon, for they were older in habits than in age. Heywood goes twice a year to London to collect his dividends, but otherwise never travels further than his feet or his well-tried old horse could carry him.

He and his wife are not tempted by 'an occasional month at Tunbridge Wells'. And they refuse to kid themselves they have symptoms of gout and need  a winter at Bath. They prefer a quiet, healthy life with their fourteen offspring at Willingden.

Shortly before the Parker carriage reaches the coast, it passes a well-sheltered house, with mature garden and orchards, which Charlotte finds delightful. Tom Parker reveals it is his own former home. It was an 'honest old place' but is situated in a dip, without a view, and cannot compare with his new house over the next hill. He has given his seaside home the voguish name 'Trafalgar House' but wonders whether he has not been precipitate: 'Waterloo is more the thing now'. However, 'Waterloo Crescent' will do nicely as the name for the fashionable street he is planning!

Entering Sanditon, Parker notices holiday-makers: ..two females in elegant white were actually to be seen with their books and camp stools – and in turning the corner of the baker's shop, the sound of a harp might be heard through the upper casement. Though he gains nothing personally from these successes (his own developments are nearer the beach), Parker is thrilled by this and by the sight of 'nankin boots' in the shoemaker's window.

He is like a child: He longed to be on the sands, the cliffs, at his own house, and everywhere out of his house at once. His spirits rose with the very sight of the sea....

An attraction of the resort is Mrs. Whitby's library, which Parker is keen to support. Like much else in Sanditon, the modest library does not testify to the prosperity Parker dreams of. As an incidental source of revenue, it sells trinkets.

Tom Parker is so passionate about the development that he could now think of very little besides. It is not just a good business idea; it is also altruistic. He wants trade to improve the lives of everybody. He is open-hearted, a kind and responsible individual, and sets an example by patronising all the local tradesmen without favouritism.