Thursday, 4 August 2016

Sundry Thoughts on Jane Austen's 'Sanditon'

Jane Austen also enjoys poking fun at fashionable clichés when writing of visitors to Sanditon: 'the Miss Beauforts were soon satisfied with the circle in which they moved in Sanditon to use a proper phrase, for everybody must now move in a circle, – to the prevalence of which rotatory motion, is perhaps to be attributed the giddiness and false steps of many.’

The minor characters include the three girls in Mrs. Griffiths' seminary. The first two, the Miss Beauforts, are 'very accomplished and very ignorant', eager to show off and to allure. They spend their money on finery and set themselves up respectively with a harp and sketching materials. They like to attract all eyes to the balcony window at which they exhibit themselves. The third girl is a potentially interesting heiress from the West Indies, Miss Lambe, 'about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, with a maid of her own'. Lady Denham marks her out as a possible wife for Sir Edward. 

What might Miss Lambe's family background have been? And why was she 'half' mulatto rather than just 'mulatto'? Possibly Jane Austen did not understand the terms for persons of mixed ancestry. A mulatto is someone who has a black parent and a white parent. So, a half mulatto is actually a quadroon - a person who has one-quarter black ancestry. A child of a white father and Negro mother was a mulatto; a child of a white father and mulatto mother was a quadroon; a child of a white father and quadroon mother was a quintero; a child of a white father and quintero mother was considered white. A white parent and a quadroon parent produced an octoroon. [In the early days of New Orleans, mixed-blood women comprised most of the residents of upscale brothels; quadroons and octoroons were often highly-paid courtesans, because they were exotic-looking, but did not look very obviously as if they had black ancestry.]

There are some interesting cultural assumptions evident in the lack of a term for the child of a white mother and black father, a white mother and mulatto father and so on. The term 'mulatto' itself has a particularly unpleasant genesis. It is a 1595 English word from Spanish and Portuguese - a diminutive of 'mulo' (mule). Mules are sterile 'halfbreeds,' the offspring of a male ass and a female horse. Received wisdom of the time suggested that mulattos were similarly 'halfbreeds' and that they were correspondingly likely to be less fertile than 'pure-breeds,' as well as being decidedly frail and sickly.

Perhaps Miss Lambe would have become the belle of the season, had Sanditon been completed. Probably the intended heroine, however, is Charlotte, ‘a very pleasant young woman of two and twenty'.

Incidentally, in October 1813, Jane had written from Godmersham, 'I admire the Sagacity and Taste of Charlotte Williams. Those large dark eyes always judge well. – I will compliment her, by naming a Heroine after her' [Letter 91]. Charlotte was the daughter of a former Canon of Canterbury.

Unfortunately, in the twelve chapters of Sanditon, she does not develop much. Her function thus far is to observe, scrutinize and judge the people and ideas presented to her. She has little to do other than think the obvious: 'It was not a week, since Miss Diana Parker had been told by her feelings, that the sea air would probably in her present state, be the death of her, and now she was at Sanditon, intending to make some stay, and without appearing to have the slightest recollection of having written or felt any such thing. – It was impossible for Charlotte not to suspect a good deal of fancy in such an extraordinary state of health.’ 

Charlotte is told the private thoughts and aspirations of the Sanditon characters. Lady Denham, for example, reveals her ungenerous attitude to her nephew and niece. A compelling reason for not inviting them to stay with her is that her two housemaids would have more work and might ask for higher wages! 

It is easy enough for Charlotte to pass judgement on Lady Denham's meanness: 'Charlotte's feelings were divided between amusement and indignation – but indignation had the larger and increasing share'. On the environmental changes, it is not so easy for Charlotte (and Jane Austen) to take a stance. They are as ambivalent about the changes as people in the 1990s when the life of English town centre shops was drained away by out-of-town supermarkets. Jane Austen realises there is something to be said for vigorous work and progress, even if means that in some respects the old must give way. 

Charlotte can see through falseness and hypocrisy where it exists. Sometimes, she seems priggishly censorious. After her first meeting with the prattling Diana, we read 'The words "Unaccountable officiousness! – Activity run mad!" – had just passed through Charlotte's mind'. 

Lady Denham is too mean to encourage doctors. She opposes having a medical man in Sanditon because 'It would be only encouraging our servants and the poor to fancy themselves ill, if there was a doctor at hand. – Oh! pray, let us have none of the tribe at Sanditon. ... Here have I lived seventy good years in the world and never took physic above twice'. 

It is always fascinating to analyze the ways in which Jane Austen conveys to the reader such vivid pictures of the characters she has invented. She uses dialogue extensively: characters reveal their intelligence, stupidity, kindness or insincerity in all they say. This is reinforced by what other characters think about them. These thoughts are often in the head of the heroine, who is (usually) perceptive, with a keen sense of values and an understanding of what constitutes proper conduct. Finally, there are direct evaluations in the voice of the third-person narrator. In Sanditon, although there is a good deal of dialogue, a high proportion of the character revelation is through analysis by the author and, as we have seen, by Charlotte Heywood, who, in these twelve chapters, has hardly any other function. At the end of the fragment, Charlotte happens to spot Sir Edward Denham and Clara alone together in a sheltered spot in the grounds of Sanditon House, presumably seeking privacy. Charlotte interprets this as a lovers' secret meeting. Although the situation 'could not but strike her rather unfavourably with regard to Charlotte', she withdraws unseen and feels they were unlucky to have been seen even by her.