Sanditon: The Unfinished Novel Come to Life

It is infinitely better to be loved than to love. Especially in a marriage. After all, to love someone is to be held captive.” Lady Denham

I write this post with the heart and soul of an avid Jane Austen fan. My favourite novelist, who I have returned to throughout my life, come rain, sun or cloud. The moment I finished reading ‘Emma’, I knew I had also found my favourite novel too. Unlike some heavier reads stemming from a similar era, Austen wrote charming and humorously. Of course darker themes were presented, most famously would be the elopement of Lydia Bennett in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but ultimately there is a sure chance that one can sit with a Jane Austen book for a spot of light reading, and find oneself lost in the captivating worlds that she creates, and the circles of differing and often peculiar individuals, brought together by circumstance. Marriage, naturally, is a commonly occurring theme, yet the leading female voices all refuse initially, whether it be down to their sense, or own personal views. Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennett are prime examples of this, however it is shown with Fanny Price of ‘Mansfield Park’ as well. Many feminist critics have argued that Austen’s purposeful decision to keep her heroines independent and not preoccupied with matrimony is let down by the conclusions; that in order for their resolution, they must marry, and they do so. On a surface level, the romantic nature is dominant however, and we all cheer for our protagonists.

It has always intrigued me, what Austen intended with Sanditon. Where was my beloved author going to lean towards with her mysterious unfinished piece of work. It starts out exactly as you would expect, with Charlotte Heywood, from a large family, and as level headed as her predecessors in the world of Austen heroines. Through her eyes, and in Austen’s words, we meet the usual array of characters, with their quirks and hints of secrecy, yet eleven chapters is not enough to know exactly the extent of these secrets and how they conclude. Nor do we know who Charlotte’s love interest is intended to be, because what would a Jane Austen novel without the journey to true love and conclusively… marriage? It is very much assumed that Sidney Parker, a character Charlotte describes as ‘good looking’ is to be that very character. We do not know this for sure, but it most conclusive.

In that moment, as they stood smiling at one another, Charlotte was conscious of several contradictory sensations, of which the chief were these: annoyance with herself for being able to incapable of governing her own actions, satisfaction that Sidney had won this very minor victory over her, amusement, embarrassment… Jane Austen, Sanditon: Jane Austen’s Last Novel Completed.

The way in which Austen writes the paragraph highlights much, however it is open to interpretation, with such curiosity and a rich tapestry sown together around the seaside town of Sanditon, many have attempted to complete it, including Jane Austen’s own niece, Anna Austen Lefroy.

Yet the interpretation I write about with such eagerness was actually based on a TV adaptation by Andrew Davies – the novel itself written by Kate Riordan. I am purposely going to give nothing away, but I was more than pleasantly surprised when I took the book to hand and started reading. I’ll admit I was cautious. In my opinion, to base something on the work of an icon was a risky move. I didn’t watch the tv series whilst it was on air, although it certainly grasped my attention. I figured it was stand alone in its own right and I didn’t associate it with Jane Austen particularly. However, I did see it on the shelf one day, awaiting to be purchased. Trepidatiously, I did so.

“Let’s see then.” I thought to myself one evening, and I began to read. And I needn’t be cautious.

The characters are all the same as the originals and the opening matches Jane Austen’s premise with dignity. We must remember that this is based on a TV adaptation and so therefore it adds a dramatised version of events compared to perhaps the gentle, no pressured narratives that we expect from the original author. However the way that Riordan writes does justice still, and the combination works. It allows for an interesting version as it is arguably more modernised. A heavy conversation originally witnessed by Charlotte between Miss Clara Brereton and Sir Edward Denham… is more than just a conversation in our adapted tale.

The modernisation is clear; from a modern perspective of Miss Georgiana Lamme, a heiress from Antigua living in a post slave-trade England, to a more graphic depiction of sexuality and of seedy London; there is no doubt that Austen would have perhaps gone a different path, if she completed Sanditon personally. The sibling relationship between Edward and Esther  certainly brushes upon the Fanny and Edmund dynamic (except, of course, written in a 21st century manner). The question is, however, had she been born in our era, would she have written Sanditon this way? I believe she would have done, or at least very similarly. Marriage continues to centralise the story, don’t get me wrong, but doesn’t conclude how an Austen novel, by formula, must, according to critics. It certainly adds intrigue.

Charlotte Heywood carries herself as a heroine in a way that carries the reader blissfully through as though we were reading Pride and Prejudice. Yes, Charlotte is certain in her opinions, but that is what we expect. As she is an outsider looking on to the seaside town she chances upon, we as the reader root for Charlotte, and we anticipate the classic happy ever after that deserves. The build up of tension and the deceptive characters that surround her – with well formulated character reveals and progression – keep us hooked.

By no means can this be a Jane Austen novel when it is adapted for a modern audience, however if you are a fan of her work, then I would recommend reading it, as Riordan has done superb job of honouring the literary legend with her words she uses to depict the tale that Davies adapted for our screens in a delightful way.

Perhaps it’s time I watched the TV series. Can hardly say I don’t have the time these days…

 

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