My quest to read all the Sanditon completions and compare them started two weeks ago, but I got bogged down by a rather slow read for some time and had to snap myself out of it with two more compelling books before I could stop feeling guilty for avoiding the slow read. If that sounds convoluted and nonsensical, that’s because it is.
Sanditon, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, was Jane Austen’s last attempted novel. She died before she could finish it. The most well-known completion, as far as I can tell, is this version I have just finished, by “Another Lady,” aka “Marie Dobbs” aka “Ann Telscombe.” Her wish to maintain anonymity demonstrates itself in her writing style, which closely resembles Austen’s in most ways. Hardcore Austen readers may find themselves periodically re-reading a string of sentences and shaking their heads, thinking, “Austen would never have phrased this that way.” For the most part, however, I appreciated Another Lady’s/Marie Dobbs’/Ann Telscombe’s careful impersonation, and even more her adherence to some of Austen’s pet subjects, namely the discrepancy between appearance and reality, and the importance of real feelings behind good manners. It is clear from the beginning of the novel that Charlotte Heywood, the heroine, is destined to fall in love with Sidney Parker, the younger brother of the family with whom she is staying in a new resort town, and Another Lady continues in this vein.
This completion, while admirable, lacks the sparkle of Austen’s other works, primarily because the heroine is so underdeveloped. The first eleven chapters, written by Austen herself, firmly anchor Charlotte’s personality in a frugal, steady temperament leavened by a healthy enjoyment of society and novelty. But she undergoes no change in understanding about herself, as do the heroines of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma; nor is there any particular sense of suspense surrounding her love interest as there is in Persuasion and Mansfield Park. One of Austen’s great talents was her ability to apply a formula to each of her novels while leaving her reader anxious to discover the means by which this formula would unfold itself. In Sanditon, it is unclear exactly what the obstacle to Charlotte and Sidney’s relationship is except her own uncertainty about his feelings. There is nothing about herself or about her external world she must overcome. She spends the book waiting for Sidney to make his very obvious feelings known, and we wait with her. When Sidney finally makes his feelings known, it is without sufficient dramatization. Indeed, Another Lady loses something by doing exactly the reverse of what Austen normally does, and gives us an under-dramatized lead up to the love scene, and an overly detailed description of the scene itself. Austen knew that love scenes are almost always a dime a dozen, and that the real meat was in the mystery of whether the scene would ever actually take place.
In an intelligent sideplot, Another Lady employs Austenian irony quite well when she depicts a brief but sweet courtship between a man who fancies himself an invalid, and an actual invalid who teaches him to enjoy life. This is so well done I would be convinced it is what Austen had in mind herself, but for its disconnectedness from the main plot. Side-plots in Austen novels always pertain to the main love affair in some way, whether it’s because they serve as a foil, or as an impediment. This sideplot involves two people who merely inhabit the same book as the main set of lovers.
I appreciated the book and found much to admire in it, but I didn’t enjoy it very much. Though I’m skeptical that lesser-known completions will surpass this one, I’ll keep reading and hope to find something that will inspire me enough to allow me to see the novel completed in my mind, if not on the page.