I made up my mind to read Jane’s fragment of Sanditon (12 chapters) first in the original version I’ve got in my edition of her MINOR WORKS (including also LADY SUSAN and THE WATSONS). Then I went on reading what Sanditon has become in J. Shapiro’s hands and imagination.
You all probably know that Jane was seriously ill when she wrote the opening chapters of Sanditon; she had less than six months to live. It is thus remarkable that the book is so fresh, innovative, and original. In her last completed novel, Persuasion, Austen had depicted how men of merit and small means could rise to affluence and position by means of service in the British navy. Sanditon builds on this theme, depicting the commercial development of a small watering place and the social confusion of its society (one character is a mulatto heiress from the West Indies, Miss Lambe).
Before writing about my impressions of this edition of Austen’s last achievement, I’ll try to give you some more information taken from my precious Deirdre La Faye , JANE AUSTEN – The World of her Novels, pp. 298 -307.
It was intended to be a long wickedly comical tale concerning a group of seaside residents, some hopeful, some foolish, some cunning, but all interested in making money by developing their little local fishing village into a smart holiday resort. These twelve chapters introduce a long list of characters, abd end with the first indication of some kind of intrigue between two of them, but after the date of March 18 at the top of the last page, the rest of it is blank .
The protagonist is Charlotte, a tall and very pleasing young woman of two and twenty, the eldest of the daughters at home, who travels to Sanditon with Mr Parker, who had happened to be involved in a carriage accident just near her house and had stopped there as a guest with his wife waiting to recover . Jane Austen does not , in this fragment, give any description of Charlotte Heywood’s appearance, but in real life she knew a Charlotte Williams, daughter of one of the Hampshire clergy and wrote to Cassandra in 1813: “I admire the Sagacity & Taste of Charlotte Williams. Those large dark eyes always judge well. – I will compliment her, by naming a Heroine after her.” So perhaps Charlotte Heywood shares large dark eyes as well as a Christian name with the intelligent Miss Williams of Hampshire.
At Sanditon Charlotte presently meets the brisk, formidable and rather vulgar Lady Denham, who has climbed socially and gained riches from two childless marriages and is now keeping a tight hold on her purse strings; this is greatly to the disappointment of young Sir Edward Denham, who cannot be as extravagant as he feels a baronet is entitled to be - he can only drive a gig instead of a curricle - and of his discontented sister, Esther. By her first marriage Lady Denham has acquired the large and handsome Sanditon House, where she lives with a poor and beauriful cousin, Clara Brereton , as her companion. When Charlotte and Mrs Parker walk up the long drive through the grounds to call at Sanditon House, Charlotte sees through the fence and trees that Clara and Sir Edward are having what is obviously a private conversation...and this is where the fragment ends.
There are some aspects of the book that I would have changed.
Firstly I don’t like what Shapiro makes of Jane’s male protagonist, the hero of SANDITON, Sidney Parker. For instance, in Shapiro’s completion, Charlotte overhears Sidney revealing to his elder brother, Mr Parker, his intention to propose to her to give Sanditon an exciting event to talk about! Moreover, after his dashing entrance in Jane’s chapter 12, he is always laughing and telling silly shallow things in the following ones by Shapiro! What Kind of Austen’s hero is he? A Mr Elton? A Mr Collins? Rather improbable.
Secondly, I wish there had been more conversations between Charlotte and Sidney before … well … Their relationship is too rushed. Rather unacceptable.
Third disturbing element: there is an embarassing incident between two minor characters . Sir Edward Denham - the silly scoundrel of the story - apparently tries to attack sweet Clara Brereton, Lady Denham’s ward. Charlotte finds the poor girl on the ground in the garden without her collar. The scene is absolutely hilarious but it does not sound very Austenish to me. Such a direct reference to sexual harassment is rather improbable. I don’t remember any similar scene in her other novels. Too risqué!
Did I like anything in the book apart from Jane's infinite mastery at depicting new characters in a few lines which convinced me she could have written her most witty masterpiece - after Emma - if she had had the opportunity to live just a bit longer? YES! The painting in the front cover: THE SOUVENIR by Jean-Honoré Fragonard!
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