The one awful thing about being a Jane Austen fan is that she only published six novels. We’re always left hungry for more. But don’t despair, there is more Jane Austen to love—and not just in the stories written by others!
In a series of posts, I’ll focus on the novels she started but didn’t finish, as well as the stories she wrote when she was an impossibly precocious child. Collectively, these are known as Jane Austen’s minor works, and they’re in print in several editions.
We’ll start at the end, with Sanditon. In the final months of Austen’s life, when she was seriously ill and doubtless realized her days were numbered, she chose to begin writing a novel about . . . hypochondriacs. This strikes me as a gallant and defiant act, and typical of her personality.
The story she called The Brothers and history knows as Sanditon was begun in January 1817 and set aside in March; in July of the same year, Jane Austen died after months of acute suffering.
Our awareness of this context lends poignancy to the reading of Sanditon, for it is surely one of the cheeriest and most laugh-out-loud funny works she had written since she was a child. It begins in slapstick—a carriage overturns, spilling its occupants virtually into the heroine’s lap. The travelers, grateful for their rescue, invite the heroine to come for a visit at their seaside-resort home.
There she meets a motley assortment of invalids, wannabes, and vulgarians, and is introduced to a mock-hero (the melodramatic Sir Edward Denham). On almost the last page of the fragment we meet the man who was probably intended to be the real hero—Sidney Parker—described as “about 7 or 8 & 20, very good-looking, with a decided air of Ease & Fashion, and a lively countenance.” With this tantalizing beginning we must content ourselves, for Jane Austen could write no more.
I’m often torn about whether Austen was really attempting to write another novel or just amusing herself as a distraction from her suffering. On the one hand, the manuscript of Sanditon shows heavy revision, which implies a serious intent; but on the other hand the heroine, Charlotte Heywood, seems almost indistinguishable in her point of view from the narrator—she could be a portrait of the young Jane Austen herself. Despite Charlotte’s youth and upbringing in rural obscurity, she is a shrewd observer of human folly, seeing through the pretensions and self-delusions of all the other characters. These characters are presented to us in broadly comic terms with little nuance, and both the author and Charlotte amuse themselves at their expense. Surely if Austen had really believed she was going to finish and publish Sanditon, she would have created another of the delightfully flawed and misdirected heroines we have come to love!
Regardless—and despite all the unanswered questions raised by this fragment of a story—Sanditon is a rewarding read, because it is extraordinarily rich in those Jane Austen moments we have come to love. If you haven’t already, read it for the Miss Beauforts moving in the social circles of Sanditon until they get dizzy; for Arthur Parker’s anxious concern over his stomach linings; for Lady Denham’s milch asses and her jaw-dropping vulgarity; and especially for Sir Edward, “formed to be a dangerous man,” who is determined to figure as the villain in a romantic drama of his own devising.
And then devise your own ending to the story!
Abigail Bok is the author of a contemporary Austenesque novel, An Obstinate, Headstrong Girl, and of “A Dictionary of Jane Austen’s Life and Works,” published as part of The Jane Austen Companion. She is currently at work on a series called Darking Hundred, set in England in the year 1800. Abigail is also the top placing winner of the Meryton Press Summer Lovin’ Short Story Contest. Her story, Summer at Sanditon, is featured in Sun-Kissed: Effusions of Summer.