Sanditon, Jane Austen’s Masterpiece Completed

I had all but forgotten how charming Sanditon is. The distinct and contrasting personalities of the straightforward Mr. Heywood and the polite but hasty, dramatic, Bingley-esque visitor, Mr. Parker, leap from the page in chapter 1. Parker’s leg, he says, gives him no pain when he “is quiet,” but that almost never happens when first we meet him. Austen is in fine form here, ridiculing the silly. Mr. Heywood has relatively brief moments of speech (akin to Mr. Bennet’s compared with his lady’s in chapter 1 of P and P); Mrs. Parker gets no word in here at all. We are left with quite a first impression of this man with “more imagination than judgment.”

Austen gives us many of her trademark comic treats here—free indirect discourse, juxtaposition of direct characterization with contradictory statements by the characters in question, and some great axiomatic lines. In chapter 3, we learn that “every neighborhood should have a great lady,” an axiom Shapiro picks up later with several key twists. We are also told that “those who tell their own story, you know, must be listened to with caution.”

This is Austen at her funniest. There are several reminders of earlier works. Austen hints at Northanger Abbey with a man who scorns novels (and plans to abscond with an innocent woman), in the tradition of John Thorpe. Persuasion’s Mary Musgrove’s hypochondria finds even more devotees in the three Parker siblings who spend more time discussing their ailments than actually suffering from them. Even when the Austen section ends, the hints at other works appear, such as the topaz crucifix (though Fanny’s was a cross) Miss Lambe wears, and the comments on “the intimacy of whispering” that reminds us of Emma asking Mr. Elton to refrain from sharing such a thing with her.

This vivacious Austen shares with us actual words of thoughts of the heroine in a way that feels new. The narrator tells us, for instance, that “the words ‘unaccountable officiousness!’ and ‘activity run mad!’ had just passed through Charlotte’s mind. Is there another work in which she directly tells us the words with which the heroine thinks? Initially, the reader appreciating this wit at its freshest experiences sadness when Austen’s text stops and Shapiro’s text begins. One of Austen’s last images is of a happy mother walking with her friend and her own little girl, and one can’t help but wonder if Austen wished that type of happiness for herself, and what she must have been feeling in her last weeks alive.

It seems fitting, then, as we prepare emotionally for a transition, that our heroine, Charlotte Heywood, stumbles upon trouble. Because of her emotional maturity, she knows she is falling in love with Sidney, but, despite her emotional maturity, she makes a huge error in judgment with respect to understanding his feelings for her. That said, the misunderstanding between Charlotte and Sidney happens too quickly—as does her realization of her own mistake—to be completely believable. The characters need more time with the suffering to make the resolution sufficiently rewarding for the reader! Charlotte’s sudden awareness of her feelings and the situation feel like a sped-up version of Elizabeth Bennet’s “till this moment, I never knew myself.” The second proposal, too, seems a bit too close to Pride and Prejudice (certainly a good model for any such story, but obvious to readers who know Austen’s work).

Shapiro makes departures from Austen, some that work, and some that don’t. She makes the interesting choice to have the hero and heroine reunite significantly before the rest of the story is resolved. Many a sub-conflict needs to be unraveled after Charlotte and Sidney are secure, including a seemingly oddly-placed Rapunzel-like story (Rosamunde), Maisie’s real background (does she remind anyone at first of Molly, Jaggers’ maid in Great Expectations?), and a death scene that brings everything together (and occurs with jocularity, rather than with real sadness). Shapiro does more than repeat Austen’s own aphorisms; she also adds her own, sometimes successfully (it is merely latecomers’ “lack of punctuality that affords them undue allure”) and sometimes less so (“What a monstrous dictator money is!”—too strong and direct for Austen. She’d have one character comment upon another’s mercenary motives rather than have the narrator directly rail against society’s ills.). The narrator often speaks directly to the reader, and sometimes even about her task as the writer (“I must confess I do not like the idea of writing for such dull elves”). Austen does that in Northanger Abbey, but not afterward, so this seems an odd choice for the last-written work, unless Shapiro intends to have Austen’s oeuvre come full circle.

More likely, however, Shapiro brings Austen’s work from the neoclassicist era in which all the novels are grounded to the Romantic one, in which a scene of nature inspires individual rapture. Sanditon, beginning with Mr. Parker’s solo rhapsodies, but including nearly all its inhabitants by the final chapter, is clearly such a place, and Shapiro bridges the periods with this delightful continuation of Austen’s final fragment.

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Published in: on December 1, 2009 at 9:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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