To skip my somewhat, ahem, lengthy but totally engaging and informative introduction and just go ahead and read my reviews, just click here to skip to the end.
Back in June 2011, as I waited impatiently for A Dance With Dragons to come out and wondered if George R.R. Martin will even live long enough to finish the damn series (we’re pullin’ for ya, George!), I consoled myself with thinking that at least there’s still a chance for “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Because Sanditon is the ultimate teaser preview that will never be resolved.
All right, so the two are not exactly comparable. Jane Austen didn’t write about dragons. But in a way, she and George Arrrr! Martin (called so by me because of his predilection for wearing sailor hats) have a lot in common. They both concern themselves with a very specific world that has very specific rules, with very finely drawn characters who have specific motivations and pursue their goals by observing, manipulating, or outright thwarting those rules. In Jane Austen’s world, words are swords.
Okay, who else just realized for the first time ever that “swords” is just “words” with an s in front? Consider my mind blown.
I knew I had to read Sanditon at some point, just to complete my knowledge of her novels, but I put it off for a long time because of the dissatisfaction I knew would follow. Austen died before she could complete the novel, so all we fans have left are eleven chapters of a book that promised to retain all the Austen wit and sharpness of observation, while presenting us with a plot and scenery and problems that seemed so different from anything we’d seen before. Before Sanditon, all of Austen’s novels focused on the landed estate: who owned it, who should own it, what responsibilities came with owning it, who had been exiled from it, who abandoned it, and who rose up to claim it against all odds. The landed estate, in Austen’s time, represented the pinnacle of wealth and security, the utmost standing in society that could be reached short of nobility or royalty. The gentry Austen focused on was roughly the equivalent of most of the upper class families living in Greenwich, Connecticut, or the wealthier areas of Southern California: they’re not oil sheiks and they may only have two or three houses instead of 20, but mostly, they never have to worry about where the money’s coming from.
One of the most powerful assertions of Austen’s work was that the upper class, far from being fit to disdain or ignore the middle and trade classes, needed the moderation of values the middle class provided if it was to sustain itself. So Elizabeth Bennet, the middle class girl, teaches Mr. Darcy, the wealthy estate owner, what it really means to be a gentleman. (Hint: having money does not automatically make you a gentleman.) Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, learns that there’s more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good-looking. Exiled from their former state of wealth, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, with their intelligence and kind hearts, without even trying, make a lot of upper-class bitches look like damn fools. Fanny Price teaches her plantation-owning, slave-driving baronet uncle that wealth doesn’t count for much if your daughter’s a tramp and your son’s a man-whore spendthrift. I’m sure Catherine Norland teaches somebody… something. Anne Elliot learns that hot wealthy intelligent ship Captains beat the hell out of creepy scheming rich first cousins any day. (Although, really, I could have told her that. And anyway it’s really Captain Wentworth who needs to learn to get over himself and understand other people’s points of view.) And she bails on the landed estate and goes to sea.
In Austen’s last completed novel, then, Persuasion, we have the heroine leaving the corrupted landed estate altogether. And then! And then! In Sanditon, we have a heroine visiting an entirely new town! Charlotte Heywood visits the Parkers, who are trying to create and populate a new seaside resort. God, what an ingenious notion! What possibilities! Away from the landed estate, with a chance to start almost from scratch, what kind of society will these people come up with? In the first eleven chapters, Austen introduces Charlotte, a very sensible young woman from a sensible family with fourteen (!) children. Charlotte visits the Parkers in Sanditon, meeting Mr. Parker’s histrionic siblings, the Oprah-rich Lady Denham and her circle of hangers-on who wait for her to drop dead so they can inherit her wealth, the beautiful Clara Brereton, who dammit, I know has something up her sleeve butI’llneverknowwillI?, the two Miss Beauforts, mancatchers in the making, and the sickly but rich Miss Lambe, a “half-mulatto” West Indian heiress.
And then the book stops. Just stops. I made one of my reading projects for the year to read all the attempted endings to this novel, and compare them to one another. And offer my supreme judgment. And you, lucky you, can read my thoughts here. If things don’t go as I hope, in another ten years you’ll be here reading my thoughts on all the attempted endings to “A Song of Ice and Fire,” as well.
Sanditon, by Jane Austen and Another Lady, AKA Marie Dobbs, AKA Anne Telscombe, published 1998
A Completion of Sanditon, by Juliette Shapiro, published 2004
A Return to Sanditon, by Anne Toledo, published 2011
To Be Reviewed… someday:
Sanditon, by D.J. Eden, published 2002 (out of print)
Sanditon: A Continuation, by Anna Austen LeFroy, published 1983, (out of print)
Somehow Lengthened, by Alice Cobbett, published 1932 (out of print)