What better way to go into September than discussing the best place to go for a seaside holiday. Where did you go? Where can you stay in a nice house, take the sea air to improve your health, and enjoy the company of the rich and fashionable? These conversations begin Jane Austen’s novel Sanditon, which opens with a carriage accident (though not a very serious one; a sprained ankle is the worst injury). These debates, however, which follow the meeting of the Parkers and Heywoods after the carriage has been overturned, indicate the preoccupations of the chapters to come: the follies of vulgar fashion. We quickly sense that Mr Parker, with his determination to turn Sanditon from a quiet village into a prosperous and fashionable resort, is both boring and silly, if well-intentioned; but his comment that his house, Trafalgar House, would better have been named after the more recent Waterloo which is now the fashion, tell us all we need to know about him.
One way of looking at social follies is to explore their cultural tastes. The ‘downright silly’ Sir Edward Denham exposes his daftness to Charlotte Heywood when he talks about his reading matter. The gendered reading of Northanger Abbey is reversed here, as Sir Edward witters on about the supposedly elevated reading matter he prefers, to be met with a cool response from Charlotte: ‘If I understand you aright … our taste in novels is not at all the same’. Sir Edward, it seems, ‘had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him’, and consequently he spouts jargon to attempt to elevate his reading habits in the eyes of others. It quickly becomes clear, though, that unlike Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, he does not have a good heart underneath it. Really, he just reads to impress the ladies. Austen seems to be suggesting that, in fact, we are what we read; and Charlotte enjoys her novels with a pinch of salt, immediately appearing as a heroine we can trust.
Sanditon is Austen’s last novel, only 12 chapters of it completed, though many (not particularly successful) attempts have been made to finish it for her. Austen was ill whilst writing it and died before she could complete it, and perhaps the preoccupation with illnesses which aren’t real, with hypochondria, were her own attempts to tell herself that she was really going to be fine. In this novel her target is fashionable society: this is what happens ‘when rich people are sordid’, she says. The characters are three-dimensional, though, and although she is lampooning stereotypes she breathes life into them until we believe. After 12 short chapters, it’s disappointing to know we can never find out what Austen intended to do next with the Parkers, Denhams and Heywoods. (There is an excellent article here about the novel).
Unfinished novels are always intriguing, disappointing, mysterious, and irresistible to those who think they can finish the story for us. This is, presumably, how Andrew Davies felt when he decided to work on a TV adaptation of Sanditon. The Times review described the adaptation as ‘cheap and vulgar’, which perhaps it was meant to be as a reflection of the novel’s preoccupation with money.
Jane Austen’s material lasts about half an hour into the first episode, although in fact there is much left out, including Sir Edward’s book rant. Sir Edward is more creepy than silly, while Charlotte is even more of an ingenue than the book suggests. Davies seems to take loosely the characters and plot to construct his own take on Austen – which of course he is free to do, given the curtailed novel. The relationship between Charlotte and Sidney Parker seems somewhat inspired by Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy, while the other characters are mostly reduced to period drama stereotypes. I wanted to enjoy this, but ultimately it’s forgettable, silly stuff which whiles away the time without any substance; like the pineapple in episode two, it’s hollow and rather rotten. And that’s fine if you like it, but don’t call it Austen.