Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"But Sanditon itself – everybody has heard of Sanditon"

It feels weird reading a book knowing that you’ll never find out how the author intended it to end. It also makes it hard to write a review of said book. Jane Austen started writing Sanditon in 1817, she stopped writing a few months later due to her declining health. We are left with the first twelve chapters of a novel. These chapters introduce a number of characters and a setting, but before the end of the manuscript you hardly know what’s meant to happen next. Yes, there is the smallest amount of intrigue to be solved and there are a few characters that seem to be set up to become entangled with the heroine of the story, Charlotte Heywood. Apart from that, who knows what Austen would’ve come up with? There are currently two finished versions of the novel, but I’ve decided to restrict my reading to the original twelve chapters. I remember reading one of the finished versions years ago and not liking it at all. Maybe I’ll end up reviewing the version I currently have at home, by “Another Lady”, in time.

I started reading Sanditon last Sunday because I originally wanted to participate in Austenprose’s group read titled By the seaside with Sanditon. However, due to a huge amount of required reading to be done and a obligatory conference starting tomorrow, I will not be able to participate in the discussion of the book. That’s why I finished reading the book last night, as my light bedtime reading before going to sleep and that’s why I’m writing about all twelve chapters of the book and not the planned first four. This book now counts towards both the Typically British Challenge and the Jane Austen Challenge.

Sanditon is strangely different and yet remarkably familiar to Jane Austen’s other novels. The introduction of Mr. and Mrs. Parker through their carriage overturning on their way home, and their subsequent meeting with a family that lives nearby the site of the accident, Mr. and Mrs. Heywood with their children, of which Charlotte is the older daughter seems a different sort of introduction to a story than Austen usually provides. The set-up of the story is different as well: instead of revolving around one family, the story seems meant to revolve around a small community of people. This community is Sanditon, a seaside resort that Mr. Parker and Lady Denham (a rich widow) hope to turn into a successful business establishment. Within the first chapters, Charlotte Heywood is travelling to Sanditon to stay with the Parkers. Presumably Sanditon is the setting in which the rest of the story was meant to evolve. What makes this a familiar Austen novel is I think predominantly her social satire and meticulous look at characteristics of certain persons. Sanditon reminded me of Northanger Abbey in a way, because I couldn´t help but shake the feeling that Austen was poking fun at the booming business of seaside resorts in this novel, just as she did with gothic novels in Northanger Abbey.

I think I might have gone into reading this story differently than I´ve done with other Austen novels in the past. Maybe just the thought that this story will never get to the finish line made me more perceptive of all the small remarks made in the narrative. Knowing that there´s no plot to find out about, makes wanting to know how it will end sooner rather than later a useless manner of reading this book. I think it has made reading Austen more enjoyable to me in a way. I cannot but look forward to rereading her other finished novels with just as much attention to detail.

What I loved about this novel was first of all her satire of hypochondria. Two sisters of Mr. Parker and one of his brothers is constantly complaining of being unwell. I once read that hypochondria was one of the means by which women could acquire some sense of power over a situation and that it functioned as a guarantee of attention. I did not know that people at the time realized much of what was going on in these situations. In chapter nine, Austen remarks:

“It would seem that they must either be very busy for the good of others or else extremely ill themselves.”

The hypochondriac behaviour of Susan, Diana and Arthur, and the subsequently inserted commentary on their situation by the author made for some very entertaining fragments.

I liked the attention for characters in general. Most of the time we see characters and their flaws through the eyes of Charlotte Heywood. I think I found it the hardest to depart from her thoughtful and entertaining views on the people around her when I got to the end of chapter twelve. Sometimes, the remarks of the author made me laugh out loud. As happened when the seemingly very silly, but full of himself character of Edward Denham starts one of his long-winding and boring conversations:

“Still extolling the pleasures of bathing, he sought to entertain them with his longest syllables and most edifying sentences.”

I also enjoyed the contrast between many of the characters. Lady Denham who seems to be involved in Sanditon’s sea bathing business principally for money and Mr. Parker who seems genuinely interested in making the place a popular hit. Mr. Parker who is all about travel and moving forward, and Mr. Heywood who seems most interested in staying in his safe home environment. And then there’s the poor Mrs. Parker who seems quiet and obedient and hardly able to have her own say, while she’s being pushed through all these modernisations, while her remarks on the house where she used to live with Mr. Parker suggest that she rather liked the way things were.

I honestly cannot share any thoughts on how I think it will end. I think possibly Mr. Parker’s  borther Sidney was meant to become the love interest of Charlotte and I expect Arthur Parker would’ve broken away from his hypochondriac sisters in due time, but apart from that I’m blank. I cannot say that I mind not knowing how it will end, because I think the story hadn’t progressed far enough to get that feeling that you really just have to know what will happen next.

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