The Last Man
David Stuart Davies looks at Mary Shelley's 'crucial early work of post-apocalyptic science ...
Sanditon begins with an accident and ends in mid-air. An unfinished – indeed a barely started – novel will always be the subject of speculation. But the last work of Jane Austen, necessarily broken off by first her illness and then her death, invites all sorts of impressions, imaginings and extrapolations. Even allowing for its sketched form, this novel has uncertainty and contingency at its very heart. That is the opposite of what we expect from Austen, and it may be that with time and revision, it too would have been rounded out and resolved with her usual confidence and firmness of moral and narrative purpose. However, the signs are otherwise, and commentators generally agree that Sanditon marked a decided change of direction for Austen. This makes the eleven and a bit chapters she left us both poignant and fascinating in equal measures.
those chapters, and much more formally than in her other novels, Austen introduces
her dramatis personae, positioning them in a particular time and place. And
that is a seaside place – in her earlier novels often a temporary abode,
somewhere to be ventured to rather than lived in, the scene of mishap and
confusion, or something worse. We think of Louisa Musgrove leaping flirtatiously
from the Cobb into the arms of Captain Wentworth at Lyme Regis, and suffering a
punitive concussion (Persuasion) and
George Wickham almost persuading a 15-year old Georgiana Darcy to elope from
Ramsgate (Pride and Prejudice). But
in Sanditon the seaside takes centre
stage, and Austen sets her characters in motion within a physical and social
topography that is itself shifting. We can understand, then, why Andrew Davies
leapt at the chance to ‘adapt’ it for television. Everything is made ready by
the great novelist, but her death gives him convenient carte blanche to do as
he will. And being Andrew Davies, there’s plenty of will. Eight hour-long
episodes of it. At present I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, and I’ll
look at his version of Sanditon
directly after the final episode in October. At present, let’s consider the
novel as we have it; for these are Austen’s last words.
That is some 25,000 words, about one fifth of a standard Austen novel. It is remarkable that she managed that much in the space of a mere seven weeks, from January 27th to March 18th 1817 (as her own dates on the manuscript tell us). That’s an average 3,500 words a week, 500 words a day, in longhand, carefully corrected and revised. I wish I could boast such numbers. Those first three months of writing must have been dogged by ill health, but there is no sign of it; rather there is a sense of creative excitement and possibility. Illness does figure in these pages, but it is imagined rather than actual, ironized by the author, as perfectly healthy young (and some older) men and women seek out the supposed health-giving properties of sea bathing. And there’s genuine exuberance in the account of that early nineteenth-century phenomenon, the sudden explosion of the seaside resort.
very accident with which the novel begins has an excitement of its own, to
pique the reader’s interest. And while it lands us, along with the injured Mr. Tom
Parker and his wife Mary, briefly in the staid world of the Heywoods’ country
estate where ‘the maintenance, Education and fitting out of fourteen Children
demanded a very quiet, settled, careful course of Life’ – we’ll shortly be led
out of that safety into the uncharted waters of the seaside. ‘Mr and Mrs
Heywood never left home.’ Enough said. Their daughter Charlotte can’t wait to
escape to the excitements of Sanditon.
In Chapter 3, we arrive at Sanditon. But Austen defers our gratification with the opening words of the chapter: ‘Every Neighbourhood should have a Great Lady.’ This is much more Austen-like, infused with her characteristic irony; clearly Lady Denham, the necessary ‘Great Lady’, would have been a major figure in this novel. While in demeanour she is reminiscent of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, her marital history reminds us of Austen’s young heroines, struggling with the conflicting demands of social conformity, economic necessity, and their own private passions. Yet we are told that ‘Lady Denham had been a rich Miss Brereton, born to Wealth but not to Education’. She doesn’t need a rich older husband, but even so she acquires one. When he dies, her second husband might equally well profit by her, but she sees him out too, and returns to her native wealth and her first husband’s seat, having acquired a title via her second husband. Lady Denham ‘knew the value of Money’: what a weight of judgement lies in that sentence. The gloves are off in this novel, and Austen is facing up to the truths of her society. Lady Denham may appear to be nakedly materialistic, but we do not know how her past history may have evolved to make her thus. Meanwhile those closest to her may also be motivated by desire for her riches.
against her and those members of her family who revolve hopefully around her,
the naïve Charlotte Heywood represents innocence of vision, and it is her
vision that opens to us at the start of Chapter 4. The avuncular Mr. Parker (he
of the opening accident) has taken her under his wing, and by this device, and
through both his speculative narrowed gaze and Charlotte’s wide-eyed one, we
are introduced to Sanditon. It is a village in flux, neatly captured by the
Parker family’s move from their old ‘very snug-looking Place’ (Charlotte) ‘pent
down in this little contracted Nook’ (Mr. Parker) to their newly-built
Trafalgar House. They have chosen to escape the safe shelter of a house at the
centre of their own estate land, a proper distance from the hoi polloi,
‘well-fenced and well-planted’, to one at the top of a hill overlooking the
sea, a hill which Mr. Parker hopes will become ever more populous:
Trafalgar House, on the most elevated spot on the Down was a light elegant building, standing in a small Lawn with a very young plantation round it, about an hundred yards from the brow of a steep, but not very lofty Cliff – and the nearest to it, of every Building, except one short row of smart-looking Houses, called the Terrace, with a broad walk in front, aspiring to be the mall of the Place. In this row were the best Milliner’s shop and the Library – a little detached from it, the Hotel and Billliard Room – Here began the Descent to the Beach, and to the Bathing machines – and this was therefore the favourite spot for Beauty and Fashion.
Parker is practically rubbing his hands as he sees his economic opportunities
take shape, albeit with an underlying current of anxiety. This is the new world
of commerce and speculation, thrusting aside conservative values of withdrawal
and consolidation as represented by the lodge gates of the old Sanditon House,
and embracing the somewhat riskier new – for here, just beyond those gates, ‘a
little higher up, the Modern began’.
year old Charlotte looks on all this with ‘the calmness of amused Curiosity’,
but at the end of the chapter, ensconced in her room in that ‘light elegant
Building’, she gazes with pleasure ‘over the miscellaneous foreground of
unfinished Buildings, waving Linen, and tops of Houses, to the Sea, dancing and
sparkling in sunshine and Freshness.’ Ironic as the stance of the narrator
might be when observing Mr. Parker’s enthusiasm for all things seaside, she
withdraws that irony when presenting Charlotte’s point of view, and in the
novel as we have it she seems herself enthused by this new subject matter, with
its miscellaneousness and its movement.
she had lived, would this novel have been a turning point for Austen, away from
the landed classes, the fixity of social norms, and an essentially conservative
viewpoint, towards social mobility, money earned by speculation rather than
inherited by birth, and a greater openness of class relations symbolized by the
seaside resort where all could gather on a common beach, and all could submerge
themselves in the health-giving waves? Would this have been the novel that
started by being sceptical about the Modern and ended by embracing it? That we
can’t know. (Though I’ve no doubt that Andrew Davies will tell us.) The truncated
text itself is full enough of such possibilities to engage the reader’s
imagination in a new way, for we can all speculate about how it might have
moved forward, and where Charlotte and the novel would end, perhaps this time
not in matrimony but in modernity. And with such a various cast of characters,
including Miss Lambe, a mixed-race heiress – Austen’s first black character,
and one given the means to power through her money – events could move in any
direction. While in Lady Denham we have a truly original figure at the novel’s
heart, an older woman with an interesting past, likewise empowered by money,
casting her own somewhat jaundiced eye on the seaside adventure she has herself
helped to set in motion. But for me, the true interest of these seventy pages
of fiction is that they are the last that came from Jane Austen’s pen, written
in a time of pain and difficulty, perhaps even fear, but still brimming with
her wit and inventiveness and irony. We can see her writer’s eye sparkling,
even as she laid down her novelist’s pen for the very last time.
Sanditon can be
found in Lady Susan and Other Stories,
Wordsworth Editions, which also includes The
Watsons and other short or unconcluded fictions.
of Austen’s major novels are published by Wordsworth both individually and in
have been several attempts to provide an ending to Sanditon, including an early one by Austen’s own niece, Anna Lefroy,
and, improbably, one by Reginald Hill in his Dalziel and Pascoe series, A Cure for All Diseases (2008). There
are also many recent fan fiction continuations. These, and all matters Sanditon, are given the academic
onceover at http://www.jasna.org/publications/persuasions-online/vol38no1/marshall/
Davies’s Sanditon is being aired in
eight weekly hour-long episodes on Sundays at 9pm on ITV. The first two
episodes should be reachable on iplayer/catch-up.
My blog on injury stories in Jane Austen is still available on the Wordsworth website here
Image: Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire is one of the locations used in the ITV series. It has appeared in many other films and TV series, including the Merchant Ivory film The Remains of the Day. Picture: Derek Wright © 2018