Monday, 5 December 2016
INTRODUCING JANE AUSTEN'S 'SANDITON'
The manuscript of Sanditon has survived. It is in the library of King's College, Cambridge. A facsimile of the manuscript was published in 1975 to mark the Bicentenary of Jane's birth.
Jane Austen probably invented the name 'Sanditon' out of 'Sandy Town', just as she probably derived Meryton from 'Merry Town'.
The last page of Sanditon is dated 18 March 1817.
Poor Mr. Hollis! – It was impossible not to feel him hardly used; to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Harry Denham.
How sad it is, after arriving with pleasure and anticipation at the end of that sentence, to turn the page and find nothing more. For this is the novel Jane Austen left uncompleted when she died. Jane began the novel in January 1817, and, despite her fatal illness, managed to work on it for eight weeks. She died exactly four months after penning that final sentence of Chapter 12.
Sanditon offers a reprise of many pleasures which run through Jane's fiction. Language is used with consummate precision. Again she invents wonderful individuals. Still she uses ordinary situations as a basis for intriguing plot development. Fun is made of fads and fashions. Character is measured against implied standards of propriety and decency.
The events of Sanditon relate to the commercial development of a tranquil Sussex seaside village. The fashion for seaside holidays and health cures was still fairly new. As alternatives to spas such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells, coastal resorts had some years earlier begun to attract the wealthy. Bathing-machines were in use before Jane Austen was born.
Audrey Hawkridge, in Jane Austen and Hampshire (published by Hampshire County Council in 1995), says Southampton (where Jane had lived) was typical in making claims to use sea-water as a treatment for 'tedious and obstinate agues, black and yellow jaundice, schirrus of the spleen..., scurvy, green sickness and even paralytic disorders'. In Sanditon, Jane quietly poked fun at such extravagant claims.
Possibly the germ for Sanditon is in The Magic of Wealth, a novel by Thomas Skinner Surr, published in 1815. This didactic work tries to show how traditional values of dignity and hospitality are being destroyed by the corrupting effects of money. Surr's Flimflamton is a watering place being developed by the power and wealth of a banker. However, there is no evidence that Jane knew Surr's novel. It is quite possible that the two writers were independently attracted by this theme suggested by contemporary trends.
Even at this final stage in Jane's writing, there are some surprises. The subject matter takes us from the age of the idle, landed gentleman to that of the entrepreneur. We are invited to look at new commercial developments which are to have a major impact on society.
There are some interesting thoughts about economics: the effects of market forces are discussed. We do not think of Jane Austen's novels as places to look for discussions on economics. That is what we find, however, when Tom Parker tries to explain to the sceptical Lady Denham how the increase in wealthy holiday-makers will benefit the whole community. She fears prices will rise. He offers the counter-argument that sales everywhere will increase. Tradesmen will fare so well that 'in proportion to their profit must be ours eventually in the increased value of our houses'.
A surprisingly Freudian moral issue is raised: does the depiction of sexual violence incite weak-minded, susceptible men to crime? The lengthy passage dealing with this subject is characteristically frank.
There is a much about health: more is made of the malade imaginaire than in any previous novel. In view of Jane's illness, this is remarkable, especially as she treats these topics with characteristic flippancy. The insights into illness and hypochondria are remarkably modern.
Jane Austen was, incidentally, a great observer of the ways in which stress affected health. Some had the character to cope with stress better than others: think not only of the three Parkers in Sanditon but also of Mary Musgove (and the effects of her self-pity), Mrs. Bennet (and her self-pity), Mr. Woodhouse and his daughter, Isabella, of Jane Fairfax, Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price. We are invited to admire the ways in which the robust spirits of Admiral Croft's wife and of Mrs. Smith enable them to cope with anxiety or ill-health.