Sanditon by Jane Austen
Begun in 1817 after the completion of Persuasion, Sanditon – sadly abandoned as she gradually succumbed to her final illness – shows Jane Austen at the height of her skill as a novelist. The title refers to the town in which the novel is mostly set: an up-and-coming spa town in Sussex aspiring to transform itself into a fashionable coastal resort like Brighton.
The reader is introduced to Mr Parker, who plans to effect Sanditon’s rise to popularity, taking advantage of the contemporary health craze for sea air and bathing in salt water. Through the eyes of the provincial Charlotte Heywood, invited to visit the Parkers in Sanditon, Jane Austen highlights the ridiculous self-importance of the would-be entrepreneur Parker and the other inhabitants of the town with her usual flair.
She gives a scathing commentary on her characters’ narrow-minded engagement with contemporary affairs – Mr Parker is only interested in the victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo because he feels naming buildings in the town after them will add to Sanditon’s distinction – and recasts her spirited defence of the novel, later published in Northanger Abbey, through the character of the young baronet who, despite his gender and title, has allowed his thinking to be overly influenced by the popular (male) poets of the day.
Even as an unfinished first draft, Sanditon reflects both sophistication and humour, and it is more embedded than any other Austen novel in its social and historical context. Although every reader that begins it must know that the manuscript was abandoned, it is impossible not to feel a sense of disappointment as we leave Charlotte in Sanditon, having only met a portion of its hilarious inhabitants.
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