Sanditon, by Jane Austen and Marie Dobbs
Sandition, the last and incomplete novel fragment by Jane Austen, presents the Austen scholar with a bit of a mystery. More obscure than the Watsons, which has been completed at least three different ways, this particular novel fragment only had 26,000 words and ended in the 11th chapter. In reading this continuation, one has to remember that this is not fully Austen’s work, but it is written at least competently and enjoyably, even if Jane Austen would have almost certainly written her plot a bit differently. Indeed, this particular novel gives the experienced reader of Austen’s novels the joy of seeing various of her other novels being referenced in the goings on here. If Marie Dobbs is no Austen, she is at least capable here of writing a loving pastiche that contains knowing winks to Austen’s novels, including a dramatic carriage ride that reminds one of Northanger Abbey, a reference to gloomy cousins marrying that references Mansfield Park, and a spirited heroine whose misunderstandings and whose capacity for self-expression rival that of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, all of which is definitely for the best. Again, if this novel is not as good as Jane Austen’s work, it is at least good enough that it demonstrates the continuing author’s fondness of and awareness of Austen’s writing and the sort of plots she enjoyed creating.
This large print book of about 450 pages is by no means as challenging to read or as long as it may first appear. Our focus in the book is generally on its appealing heroine, a young woman named Charlotte Heywood, who is the eldest daughter in a family of fourteen (!) children, who is invited to stay with a wealthy couple in the seaside beach resort of Sanditon, which is attempting to capitalize on the end of the Napoleonic Wars by encouraging some real estate speculation among its wealthy inhabitants. As Charlotte gets to know various people in and around town, she finds herself caught in their concerns and in their romantic affairs, even as she finds herself captivated by the daring Sidney Parker. It would appear, more than usually in Austen’s writing, that Charlotte’s presence in Sanditon appears to be mainly in order for the heroine to find a suitable gentry husband outside of the confined social circle of her overly large family, and the climax of the novel features a dramatic attempt on the part of someone to kidnap a young woman and force himself on her, leading to one of the most perilous scenes that would have appeared in any Austen novel.
It is mainly this scene that strikes me as discordant with Austen’s work as a whole. While I do not think it unreasonable that Austen would have had plenty of fun joking about hypochondriacs (and the fact that she wrote about hypochondriacs as she was dying is one of life’s cruel ironies), it seems a bit of a stretch to think that he would have a kidnapper who was determined to attempt to elope with at least one beautiful young woman after having written a disastrous letter. While Austen had no doubt read such scenes in her literature, that sort of plot seems out of a gothic romance rather than something out of Austen’s own work. For the most part, though, that one glaring element apart, most of this writing appears as if it could have been written by Austen. The focus on assemblies, the general frustration of people’s plans and goals, and the way that conversation can lead to love for a young woman whose wit is attractive to those who have the good sense to recognize the importance of intelligent conversation when one is planning who to spend one’s life with.