It is a truth universally acknowledged that Andrew Davies is the king of cinematic Austen adaptation. When I first learned that he was taking on Sanditon, the novel Austen died before completing, I was elated. It was a completed version of Sanditon that first introduced me to the world of JAFF, and I have since read several other attempts to finish the story, so you better believe I was agog with curiosity to see what Davies would do with it.
The series began on ITV in the UK two Sundays ago, on August 25th. I am very sad to say it will not be aired in the US until January 12th on PBS. Though I have seen the first episode, have no fear for spoilers in this post. All I will say is that the story has already progressed beyond what Austen wrote, that it is not entirely faithful to her tale, and that I am very anxious to see more. Oh! And I’ll add that there is a fabulous bathing machine scene, really not to be missed. Those few details aside, this post is about what Austen actually wrote: an overview of twelve tantalizing chapters that prove she was at the height of her literary powers despite the debilitating illness that would soon take her life.
The text of Sanditon is less than 25,000 words, but it is chockfull of Austeny goodness. I highly recommend reading it (find it here), but if time and/or interest is limited, this post will give you a broad notion of what happens. I find Sanditon infinitely more compelling than Austen’s other incomplete novel, The Watsons, which she abandoned on its own merits many years before. It’s impossible not to long for a conclusion to a story of such potential, but what we do have is no less wonderful, even in its rough draft state, for being unfinished. It is of no small consequence that Austen had already been sick for about a year when she began to work on the manuscript she called The Brothers, as ailment and its potential cures are at the heart of the plot. The story begins with a carriage accident. Mr. Parker of Sanditon, accompanied by his wife, breaks his leg on a fool’s errand to find a nonexistent surgeon and finds himself in the capable care of the genteel and large Heywood family. Mr. Parker’s entire character is defined by his heedless enthusiasm for his pet project of transforming his native village into a seaside resort, for which the surgeon had been intended, but he is so good-natured, even in the throws of self-inflicted mishap, that it is impossible not to like him. He accounts for himself thusly:
“Well, I dare say it is as you say and I have made an abominably stupid blunder—all done in a moment. The advertisements did not catch my eye till the last half hour of our being in town—when everything was in the hurry and confusion which always attend a short stay there. One is never able to complete anything in the way of business, you know, till the carriage is at the door.”
It is also impossible not to feel some immediately sympathy for his remarkably complacent wife.
Mr. Heywood is only present at the beginning of the book, but his introduction speaks to the character of his brood. The Parkers end up making a stay of several days with the Heywoods while Mr. Parker recuperates. A surprising friendship develops between the two families. It is only the goodwill and good humor of both that can account for it, as the gulf between the temperaments of the practical Mr. Heywood and the rapturous Mr. Parker is enormous, as is made clear in chapter two:
[Mr. Parker] wanted to secure the promise of a visit, to get as many of the family as his own house would contain, to follow him to Sanditon as soon as possible; and, healthy as they all
undeniably were, foresaw that every one of them would be benefited by the sea. He held it indeed as certain that no person could be really well, no person (however upheld for the present by fortuitous aids of exercise and spirits in a semblance of health) could be really in a state of secure and permanent health without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year. The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every disorder of the stomach, the lungs or the blood. They were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-septic, anti-billious and anti-rheumatic. Nobody could catch cold by the sea; nobody wanted appetite by the sea; nobody wanted spirits; nobody wanted strength. Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing fortifying and bracing seemingly just as was wanted sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the sea breeze failed, the sea-bath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, the sea air alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure.
His eloquence, however, could not prevail. Mr. and Mrs. Heywood never left home. Marrying early and having a very numerous family, their movements had long been limited to one small circle; and they were older in habits than in age. Excepting two journeys to London in the year to receive his dividends, Mr. Heywood went no farther than his feet or his well-tried old horse could carry him; and Mrs. Heywood’s adventurings were only now and then to visit her neighbours in the old coach which had been new when they married and fresh-lined on their eldest son’s coming of age ten years ago. They had a very pretty property; enough, had their family been of reasonable limits, to have allowed them a very gentlemanlike share of luxuries and change; enough for them to have indulged in a new carriage and better roads, an occasional month at Tunbridge Wells, and symptoms of the gout and a winter at Bath. But the maintenance, education and fitting out of fourteen children demanded a very quiet, settled, careful course of life, and obliged them to be stationary and healthy at Willingden.
What prudence had at first enjoined was now rendered pleasant by habit. They never left home and they had gratification in saying so. But very far from wishing their children to do the same, they were glad to promote their getting out into the world as much as possible. They stayed at home that their children might get out; and, while making that home extremely comfortable, welcomed every change from it which could give useful connections or respectable acquaintance to sons or daughters. When Mr. and Mrs. Parker, therefore, ceased from soliciting a family visit and bounded their views to carrying back one daughter with them, no difficulties were started. It was general pleasure and consent.
Their invitation was to Miss Charlotte Heywood, a very pleasing young woman of two and twenty, the eldest of the daughters at home and the one who, under her mother’s directions, had been particularly useful and obliging to them; who had attended them most and knew them best. Charlotte was to go, with excellent health, to bathe and be better if she could; to receive every possible pleasure which Sanditon could be made to supply by the gratitude of those she went with; and to buy new parasols, new gloves and new brooches for her sisters and herself at the library, which Mr. Parker was anxiously wishing to support.
Like Catherine Morland before her, Charlotte may not look it – “her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, [are] all equally against her” – but she is destined to be our heroine, now off to “seek her adventures abroad” (Northanger Abbey). As recently discussed in my Mirrors of the Mind posts, Austen rarely describes her heroines in physical detail, relying on their actions for character development, and frequently introduces them only after several chapters have transpired: a tendency more apparent in Sanditon than any of her completed novels. Chapter three is entirely dedicated to describing the Sanditon community. “Every neighbourhood should have a great lady. The great lady of Sanditon was Lady Denham.” Lady Denham is a wealthy widow, twice married, with no children. She is Mr. Parker’s partner in the development of Sanditon, and though rather parsimonious, has apparently been convinced to make a substantial investment in the project. With her lives an impoverished niece, Miss Clara Brereton. In nearby Denham Park reside her nephew and niece by marriage, Sir Edward and Miss Denham.
In chapter four, they drive through the village of Sanditon, passing the Parker’s former home, and arrive at their newly established Trafalgar House. Austen utilizes the end of the journey to precisely detail the layout of her imagined seaside resort, further highlight Mr. Parker’s exuberance, and make mention of his brother, Sidney Parker, who is undoubtedly the story’s intended hero:
“Sidney says anything, you know. He has always said what he chose, of and to us all. Most families have such a member among them, I believe, Miss Heywood. There is someone in most families privileged by superior abilities or spirits to say anything. In ours, it is Sidney, who is a very clever young man and with great powers of pleasing. He lives too much in the world to be settled; that is his only fault. He is here and there and everywhere.”
Chapter five finds Mr. Parker attending to his letters, by which means the rest of his extended family is made known. Two unmarried sisters, Diana and Susan, and a youngest brother, Arthur, who reside together elsewhere, make up our cast of hypochondriacs, a necessary feature in a proper spa town. It is not until chapter six, when we meet Lady Denham and Miss Brereton in person, that Austen finally provides us with a character description of Charlotte. Until this point, we have only known her mind. Like all Austen heroines, she has quick and keen powers of observation, which allow her to quickly mesh Mr. Parker’s praise of all with reality. It is very interesting that the long-awaited description of Catherine’s finally comes only after and in contrast to that of Clara’s, and that not a hint of her physical appearance is revealed in the process. Austen only confirms of Catherine what we have already seen to be true:
Elegantly tall, regularly handsome, with great delicacy of complexion and soft blue eyes, a sweetly modest and yet naturally graceful address, Charlotte could see in her only the most perfect representation of whatever heroine might be most beautiful and bewitching in all the numerous volumes they had left behind on Mrs. Whitby’s shelves. Perhaps it might be partly owing to her having just issued from a circulating library but she could not separate the idea of a complete heroine from Clara Brereton. Her situation with Lady Denham so very much in favour of it! She seemed placed with her on purpose to be ill-used. Such poverty and dependence joined to such beauty and merit seemed to leave no choice in the business.
These feelings were not the result of any spirit of romance in Charlotte herself. No, she was a very sober-minded young lady, sufficiently well-read in novels to supply her imagination with amusement, but not at all unreasonably influenced by them; and while she pleased herself the first five minutes with fancying the persecution which ought to be the lot of the interesting Clara, especially in the form of the most barbarous conduct on Lady Denham’s side, she found no reluctance to admit from subsequent observation that they appeared to be on very comfortable terms. She could see nothing worse in Lady Denham than the sort of old-fashioned formality of always calling her Miss Clara; nor anything objectionable in the degree of observance and attention which Clara paid. On one side it seemed protecting kindness, on the other grateful and affectionate respect.
In chapter seven we meet Sir Edward and Miss Denham. Both are rather awful, though Sir Edward, who has befuddled his brain with misapplied quotes, is at least comic. Charlotte attributes their defects to Lady Denham’s treatment of them. As the great lady herself explains in her first tete-a-tete with Charlotte:
“I have been a very liberal friend to Sir Edward. And poor young man, he needs it bad enough. For though I am only the dowager, my dear, and he is the heir, things do not stand between us in the way they commonly do between those two parties. Not a shilling do I receive from the Denham estate. Sir Edward has no payments to make me. He don’t stand uppermost, believe me. It is I that help him.“
Charlotte is thorough in her subconscious condemnation (and I love that it is in quotes, displaying Austen’s continuing development of the subconscious voice, a truly groundbreaking feature of her work):
“She is thoroughly mean. I had not expected anything so bad. Mr. Parker spoke too mildly of her. His judgement is evidently not to be trusted. His own good nature misleads him. He is too kind-hearted to see clearly. I must judge for myself. And their very connection prejudices him. He has persuaded her to engage in the same speculation, and because their object in that line is the same, he fancies she feels like him in others. But she is very, very mean. I can see no good in her. Poor Miss Brereton! And she makes everybody mean about her. This poor Sir Edward and his sister—how far nature meant them to be respectable I cannot tell—but they are obliged to be mean in their servility to her. And I am mean, too, in giving her my attention with the appearance of coinciding with her. Thus it is, when rich people are sordid.”
Chapter eight reveals just how disrespectable Sir Edward is and the vulnerability of Clara Brereton, our model of a typical heroine. Austen minces no words here, and I have to imagine the disclosure would have been a bit more subtly revealed after revision, because the subject matter is so very far outside Austen’s genteel comfort zone:
Sir Edward’s great object in life was to be seductive. With such personal advantages as he knew himself to possess, and such talents as he did also give himself credit for, he regarded it as his duty. He felt that he was formed to be a dangerous man, quite in the line of the Lovelaces. The very name of Sir Edward, he thought, carried some degree of fascination with it. To be generally gallant and assiduous about the fair, to make fine speeches to every pretty girl, was but the inferior part of the character he had to play. Miss Heywood, or any other young woman with any pretensions to beauty, he was entitled (according to his own view of society) to approach with high compliment and rhapsody on the slightest acquaintance. But it was Clara alone on whom he had serious designs; it was Clara whom he meant to seduce.
Her seduction was quite determined on. Her situation in every way called for it. She was his rival in Lady Denham’s favour; she was young, lovely and dependent. He had very early seen the necessity of the case, and had now been long trying with cautious assiduity to make an impression on her heart and to undermine her principles. Clara saw through him and had not the least intention of being seduced; but she bore with him patiently enough to confirm the sort of attachment which her personal charms had raised. A greater degree of discouragement indeed would not have affected Sir Edward. He was armed against the highest pitch of disdain or aversion. If she could not be won by affection, he must carry her off. He knew his business. Already had he had many musings on the subject. If he were constrained so to act, he must naturally wish to strike out something new, to exceed those who had gone before him; and he felt a strong curiosity to ascertain whether the neighbourhood of Timbuctoo might not afford some solitary house adapted for Clara’s reception. But the expense, alas! of measures in that masterly style was ill-suited to his purse; and prudence obliged him to prefer the quietest sort of ruin and disgrace for the object of his affections to the more renowned.
It’s wonderful to know that Austen, in failing health, could still laugh at even such a determined villain as Sir Edward, but the subject matter is extremely serious. No where else does Austen devote such attention to the mental acrobatics of your run-of-the-mill rogue’s mind. Usually, she only troubles herself with the motivations of mentally gifted scoundrels.
Chapter nine sees Diana, Susan, and Arthur Parker arriving in Sanditon. Diana is a bit Miss Bates-like in her gregariousness, though the latter is far too mild a creature to engage in the kind of determined interference which, alongside her imagined illnesses and fondness for quackery, defines Diana. She gives this account of herself shortly after her introduction:
“Miss Heywood, I astonish you. You hardly know what to make of me. I see by your looks that you are not used to such quick measures.”
The words “Unaccountable officiousness!—Activity run mad!” had just passed through Charlotte’s mind, but a civil answer was easy.
“I dare say I do look surprised,” said she, “because these are very great exertions, and I know what invalids both you and your sister are.”
“Invalids indeed. I trust there are not three people in England who have so sad a right to that appellation! But my dear Miss Heywood, we are sent into this world to be as extensively useful as possible, and where some degree of strength of mind is given, it is not a feeble body which will excuse us or incline us to excuse ourselves. The world is pretty much divided between the weak of mind and the strong; between those who can act and those who cannot; and it is the bounden duty of the capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape them. My sister’s complaints and mine are happily not often of a nature to threaten existence immediately. And as long as we can exert ourselves to be of use to others, I am convinced that the body is the better for the refreshment the mind receives in doing its duty. While I have been travelling with this object in view, I have been perfectly well.”
Diana comes to arrange accommodations for a lady who she only knows by hearsay, efforts that will backfire on her. In this, she strongly resembles her brother, Tom. Susan is in her same style, though more languid, and Arthur is thoroughly indolent, happy to indulge his sisters’ doctoring as long as it keeps him from exerting any energy himself:
“I am very nervous. To say the truth, nerves are the worst part of my complaints in my opinion. My sisters think me bilious, but I doubt it.”
“You are quite in the right to doubt it as long as you possibly can, I am sure.”
“If I were bilious,” he continued, “you know, wine would disagree with me, but it always does me good. The more wine I drink in moderation the better I am. I am always best of an evening. If you had seen me today before dinner, you would have thought me a very poor creature.”
Charlotte could believe it. She kept her countenance, however, and said, “As far as I can understand what nervous complaints are, I have a great idea of the efficacy of air and exercise for them—daily, regular exercise—and I should recommend rather more of it to you than I suspect you are in the habit of taking.”
“Oh, I am very fond of exercise myself,” he replied, “and I mean to walk a great deal while I am here, if the weather is temperate. I shall be out every morning before breakfast and take several turns upon the Terrace, and you will often see me at Trafalgar House.”
“But you do not call a walk to Trafalgar House much exercise?”
“Not as to mere distance, but the hill is so steep! Walking up that hill, in the middle of the day, would throw me into such a perspiration! You would see me all in a bath by the time I got there! I am very subject to perspiration, and there cannot be a surer sign of nervousness.”
Chapter eleven, the last complete one, is devoted to showing the pointlessness of Diana Parker’s efforts and delivering new visitors to Sanditon: one Mrs. Griffiths, proprietress of a seminary, and three of her charges. The descriptions of these young ladies are fascinating and quintessentially Austen:
Mrs. Griffiths was a very well-behaved, genteel kind of woman, who supported herself by receiving such great girls and young ladies as wanted either masters for finishing their education or a home for beginning their displays. She had several more under her care than the three who were now come to Sanditon, but the others all happened to be absent. Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.
The other girls, two Miss Beauforts, were just such young ladies as may be met with, in at least one family out of three, throughout the kingdom. They had tolerable complections, showy figures, an upright decided carriage and an assured look; they were very accomplished and very ignorant, their time being divided between such pursuits as might attract admiration, and those labours and expedients of dexterous ingenuity by which they could dress in a style much beyond what they ought to have afforded; they were some of the first in every change of fashion. And the object of all was to captivate some man of much better fortune than their own.
Mrs. Griffiths had preferred a small, retired place like Sanditon on Miss Lambe’s account; and the Miss Beauforts, though naturally preferring anything to smallness and retirement, having in the course of the spring been involved in the inevitable expense of six new dresses each for a three-days visit, were constrained to be satisfied with Sanditon also till their circumstances were retrieved. There, with the hire of a harp for one and the purchase of some drawing paper for the other, and all the finery they could already command, they meant to be very economical, very elegant and very secluded; with the hope, on Miss Beaufort’s side, of praise and celebrity from all who walked within the sound of her instrument, and on Miss Letitia’s, of curiosity and rapture in all who came near her while she sketched; and to both, the consolation of meaning to be the most stylish girls in the place. The particular introduction of Mrs. Griffiths to Miss Diana Parker secured them immediately an acquaintance with the Trafalgar House family and with the Denhams; and the Miss Beauforts were soon satisfied with “the circle in which they moved in Sanditon,” to use a proper phrase, for everybody must now “move in a circle” to the prevalence of which rotatory motion is perhaps to be attributed the giddiness and false steps of many.
Chapter twelve begins ten days after Charlotte’s arrival in Sanditon and sees her calling on Lady Denham for the first time. Two items of importance take place before Austen laid down her pen. The first is the arrival of Sidney, whose introduction into the story, especially compared to those of the other characters, is pretty mundane. We know he must be the hero simply because there are no other eligible male candidates for the roll:
Mr. Sidney Parker, driving his servant in a very neat carriage, was soon opposite to them, and they all stopped for a few minutes. The manners of the Parkers were always pleasant among themselves; and it was a very friendly meeting between Sidney and his sister-in-law, who was most kindly taking it for granted that he was on his way to Trafalgar House. This he declined, however. He was “just come from Eastbourne proposing to spend two or three days, as it might happen, at Sanditon” but the hotel must be his quarters. He was expecting to be joined there by a friend or two.
The rest was common enquiries and remarks, with kind notice of little Mary, and a very well-bred bow and proper address to Miss Heywood on her being named to him. And they parted to meet again within a few hours. Sidney Parker was about seven or eight and twenty, very good-looking, with a decided air of ease and fashion and a lively countenance. This adventure afforded agreeable discussion for some time. Mrs. Parker entered into all her husband’s joy on the occasion and exulted in the credit which Sidney’s arrival would give to the place.
The second event that occurs alerts Charlotte to the intrigues afoot, when she happens to spy Sir Edward and Miss Brereton unchaperoned in the park:
… Charlotte, as soon as they entered the enclosure, caught a glimpse over the pales of something white and womanish in the field on the other side. It was something which immediately brought Miss Brereton into her head; and stepping to the pales, she saw indeed and very decidedly, in spite of the mist, Miss Brereton seated not far before her at the foot of the bank, which sloped down from the outside of the paling, and which a narrow path seemed to skirt along—Miss Brereton seated, apparently very composedly—and Sir Edward Denham by her side.
They were sitting so near each other and appeared so closely engaged in gentle conversation that Charlotte instantly felt she had nothing to do but to step back again and say not a word. Privacy was certainly their object. It could not but strike her rather unfavourably with regard to Clara; but hers was a situation which must not be judged with severity.
Very shortly after this tantalizing moment, Austen stopped writing. We will never know precisely what her intentions for the story were, but a few things are pretty obvious, like Sidney’s role and Charlotte’s similarities to other Austen heroines. We can also assume that, while the Parkers are a source of amusement, they are also worthy of regard, while the Denhams function as the villains of the piece. I do so wish I could know what her intentions were for Sir Edward! He is fairly unique in her body of work. It’s also harder to surmise about Mrs. Griffiths and crew, and Miss Lambe’s race is potentially problematic for modern readers in ways that Austen probably could not even begin to conceptualize, an issue Davies is posed to address. I can’t wait to see what happens in the series!
Again, I urge everyone to take the time to read Austen’s final work of fiction for yourselves. I admit that it is, in some ways, rather torturous, not knowing where she planned to take the story, but only because what she did write is so fabulous. And there are so many marvelous continuations to discover, apart from Davies’ exciting adaptation, the trailer for which I have provided below. We have too few of Austen’s writings not to cherish every word.