In the preface to this inoffensive completion of Sanditon, Anne Toledo forewarns us that she has relegated the romantic union of Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker to part two of her three-part book, choosing to cast the town of Sanditon itself as the main character. In theory, this is a promising and intelligent idea; in practice, it drags out the book for a hundred pages after I felt ready to stop reading.
The fact is that, while Toledo’s overall approach to this completion is easy, respectful, and unpretentious, her use of Sanditon as a character doesn’t work, because she fails to give it a purpose outside of the characters’ surface aspirations. That is, for us to care about Sanditon, we need to feel that it has something more to offer the characters than husbands or wealth. After Charlotte Heywood and Clara Brereton, the two people we are taught to care for most, have successfully attached themselves to their love interests, the only question is whether Charlotte’s friends, the Parkers, can capitalize on their financial investment by making Sanditon a successful resort town, and we don’t care enough about this on its own for it to substantiate an entire third of the novel.
In a real Jane Austen novel, the success of Sanditon would somehow be skillfully interwoven with the development of Charlotte and/or Sidney’s personalities. One or the other of them would be dependent on the town for the completion of their characters, in the same way that Fanny Price’s destiny and eventual rise is linked with Mansfield Park, or Catherine Norland’s maturity and worldly understanding is tied to Northanger Abbey. In my original post on Sanditon, I described a progression in the Austen oeuvre, in which the heroine’s destiny slowly detaches from the landed estate and instead winds itself through increasingly complicated and uncharted socioeconomic terrain. Though Toledo presents us with one element of social upheaval in the character of Clara Brereton, who works for a living while maintaining respectability, the ramifications of this unfurl without much fuss or suspense. The representative of the landed estate, the wealthy Lady Denham, bends surprisingly easily into alliance with the representatives of the middle class, leaving us with no point of reference to hold against any social change that occurs. The social confusion that should pervade the beginning and middle of a Jane Austen book is absent from A Return to Sanditon, and consequently, the reader is deprived the satisfaction of watching our heroine sort it out.
This kind of complexity is a lot to ask of anyone who is not Jane Austen, but, as I’ve posted in my other Sanditon reviews, it seems that anyone attempting to complete such a novel should at least be trying for it. What we have here is an admirable effort at creating vivid, idiosyncratic, and lovable characters who face some mild external difficulties and very little necessity for personal change or enhanced understanding. Taking us further away from the realm of Austen is presentation of details that would never invade the polite world Austen readers are used to, such as relatively frank discussion of pregnancy.
My reading of three Sanditon completions has killed my hope that I might find anything more worth reading in this vein, but it has increased my appreciation for the intricacies of Austen’s writing, as I’m sure writing these books did for each of their authors.