Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Denham Family in Jane Austen's 'Sanditon'

Lady Denham is an interesting study – another of the titled Austen characters whose manners are unworthy of their status. Born 'to wealth but not to education', she had outlived two husbands. The first, Mr. Hollis, left her the manor house and much of Sanditon. The second, Sir Harry Denham, left her a title. There are strong hints that she married only with those two acquisitions in view. In spite of her fortune, she constantly scrounges hospitality and meals from others. 

At seventy, she is alert, opinionated and healthy, but even her business partner Mr. Parker recognizes that 'now and then, a littleness will appear' in her attitudes. She is too concerned about profit. Hearing that a rich family from the West Indies is expected, she does not share Parker's excitement but rather fears it will push prices up. 

Sir Edward Denham and his sister Esther, nephew and niece of the second husband, have little money. They hope for a bequest from Lady Denham. Her ladyship delights in fending them off. She expects Sir Edward to make his own way: he 'must marry for money. – He and I often talk the matter over.' Though agreeing that they are 'good young people', she will not even invite them to spend a week with her. 

Sir Edward and Esther are in competition for her Ladyship’s favours with the sensible and gentle Clara Brereton, a young relative whom Lady Denham has made her protégée. Charlotte meets Clara just after visiting Sanditon's library (where she had noticed Fanny Burney's Camilla). It occurs to her that Clara could be a literary heroine. She is regularly handsome, with great delicacy of complexion and soft blue eyes, a sweetly modest and yet naturally graceful address... she could not separate the idea of a complete heroine from Clara Brereton. Her situation with Lady Denham so very much in favour of it! – She seemed placed with her on purpose to be ill-used.... (Like her creator, Charlotte was sufficiently well-read in novels to supply her imagination with amusement, but not at all unreasonably influenced by them...!) 

Sir Edward is an amusing caricature. Charlotte is humbugged into liking him at first, for he is attentive, with 'a fine countenance' and 'a most pleasing gentleness of voice'. However, increasing familiarity shows him to be a poseur. Unintelligently and unintelligibly, he speaks of literature in pseudo-critical clichés he has learned by heart. 

He claims to be 'no indiscriminate novel-reader', explaining: 

You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can de drawn. – In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; – we distil nothing which can add to science. – You understand me I am sure? 

Charlotte replies: 

I am not quite certain that I do

Sir Edward likes to talk feelingly of the sea, and says 'Scott's beautiful lines' are never out of his mind (though he is unable to recall them: it must be Byron's sea he is searching for - 'Dark-heaving – boundless, endless and sublime – The Image of Eternity'). 

So Charlotte sees through him: He seemed very sentimental, very full of some feelings or other, and very much addicted to all the newest-fashioned hard words – had not a very clear brain she presumed, and talked a good deal by rote

In Chapter 8, Jane Austen uses a conversation outside the library between Charlotte and Sir Edward to offer us food for thought on the effects of reading. Illustrating a point noted from the time of Fielding onwards, that the novels of Richardson and his imitators had an unintended bad influence on readers who ignored their professed moral stance, she depicts Sir Edward as one such reader. He sees man's determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every feeling and convenience as heroic rather than despicable. It had occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character. Not having 'a very strong head', such a reader sees the graces, the spirit, the sagacity, and the perseverance, of the villain of the story as outweighing all his absurdities and all his atrocities. To Sir Edward, such conduct was genius, fire and feeling. – It interested and inflamed him. So, like gothic villains, he wants to be passionate about women. He fancies himself as a great seducer in the literary mould, a 'dangerous man'. He plays the part, making gallant speeches to all attractive young women (including Charlotte). Soon Charlotte thinks him 'downright silly’. 

Sir Edward sees Clara Brereton as the potential victim of his 'serious designs'. He fantasizes about abducting her. Here, Jane Austen touches on a murky bit of psychology, but treats it with a light touch. The place to which Sir Edward wants to abduct Clara is Timbuctoo! He knows he cannot afford to take her there and must prefer the quietest sort of ruin and disgrace for the object of his affections

But he is no match for the women: Clara saw through him, and had not the least intention of being seduced; and Charlotte, hearing his praise of villain-heroes in whom we see the strong spark of woman's captivations elicit such fire in the soul of man, delivers the frosty rebuff: If I understand you aright... our taste in novels is not the same!