Fragment of a Seaside Romp | Daily News


 

Fragment of a Seaside Romp

Comedy of Jane Austen’s Unfinished Last Novel, Sanditon

Was there ever a fragment like Jane Austen’s Sanditon? The distinguished novelist suffering a long decline—her brother Henry alleged that “the symptoms of a decay, deep and incurable, began to show themselves in the commencement of 1816″—used her last months to compose a work that mocks energetic hypochondriacs and departs radically from the increasing emphasis on the interior life marking the previous novels.

However weak her body—and she wrote some passages first in pencil, being unable to cope with a pen—clearly her spirit was robust. Not only that: worrying herself sick about money after a family bankruptcy, she was writing a book of jokes about risky investments and comic speculators.

For us, her readers and admirers, the farcical, ebullient Sanditon is achingly sad, for it ends with “March 18,” neatly written on an almost empty page. The final date signified that Jane Austen would write no more novels. A few days later she admitted, “Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life.” She had begun the work in a period of remission, but now she sighed, “I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again.” In April, she admitted, “I have really been too unwell the last fortnight to write anything”: she was suffering from “a Bilious attack, attended with a good deal of fever.” Four months after interrupting her last novel, she died.

Frugal with paper and densely covering her page with neat handwriting, at her death she left empty a large portion of the homemade Sanditon booklets (created by folding and cutting sheets of writing paper, then stitching them together). We know that she was dying, she could not be sure. As a result of these blank prepared pages, the final dating, and the enigmatic nature of the plot, what is not written haunts what is, and no number of continuations by cameras and other pens can quite displace the ghostly presence of that emptiness.

In contrast to the earlier novels about great houses and rural villages, Sanditon’s 12 chapters do not describe a tight country society but a developing coastal resort full of restless traveling people—the novel becomes an exuberant comedy not of organic community but rather of bodies whose weaknesses are delivered with zest. It is a surprising subject for Jane Austen’s last work, which fits neither with her previous subtle comedies of manners nor with the sentimental romantic nostalgia they gave rise to in her global fandom. The world of Sanditon is absurd, unsettled and unsettling.

The fragment introduces an array of smart, silly and ludicrous characters. Like Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, it begins by translating the heroine, Charlotte Heywood, to a place where she can enter a story. She is the first Austen heroine with the name (although Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Charlotte Lucas plays a significant role in Pride and Prejudice). In a letter of 1813 Austen related how she met a “Charlotte Williams,” whose sagacity and taste she admired. “Those large, dark eyes always judge well. — I will compliment her, by naming a Heroine after her.”

Charlotte Heywood’s translation comes about through an accident. On his way from London to the coast and making a detour to find a surgeon for his new resort, the impetuous Mr Tom Parker unwisely insists on trundling his hired coach up a poorly maintained lane. It overturns, and the crash gives him a sprained ankle. He is forced to stay with nearby rural landowners, the practical Heywoods, just then busy with June hay-making; on his departure, he repays their fortnight’s hospitality by carrying with him one of their 14 children.

Unlike the heroines of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, Charlotte is not deposited in a great house to cope with bullying or tyrannical inmates. Instead, she is taken to the new resort of Sanditon on the Sussex coast, where, much like her fictional predecessors, she will, over the next weeks, observe, judge, maybe change and possibly find love—though by the end of the fragment few hints of a lover are emerging beyond a promising mention of sense and wealth in Tom Parker’s younger brother Sidney.

(Perhaps strangely so for readers eager to find romance in the author herself. A family tradition has Jane falling in love in the Devon coastal resort of Sidmouth, probably with a clergyman—the younger family members often seem eager to provide male love-objects for their famous aunt. The absence of letters from 1801 to 1804 when she visited five or more resorts shrouds the possible romance from biographers—but not from creative fans.)

In her role as observer, the clear-eyed Charlotte less resembles the usual Austen heroine who matures through incidents and errors and more the foreigner or stranger used in satire to notice and comment on eccentric and perplexing native habits—or Lewis Carroll’s young, down-to-earth Alice trying to assess Wonderland with above-land tools.

An older, more mature narrator bustles in at times to stress Charlotte’s inexperience and tendency to categorical judgement—a narrator far from the “impersonal,” “inscrutable” one Virginia Woolf discovered in Austen’s work.

A young woman of Charlotte’s age quite properly appreciates sexual interest and should enjoy the attentions of a handsome baronet, remarks the narrator. But mostly she lets us see through her heroine’s youthfully disapproving, sometimes intemperate eyes, so that we are led to laugh at a proliferation of herbal teas or a cautious consideration of butchers’ meat and servants’ wages, without hesitating to wonder if this is wise.

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