Monday, March 13, 2017

On Jane Austen's "Sanditon"

Regular readers of this blog will likely remember that I am a dedicated, devoted reader and admirer of Jane Austen’s fiction (along with millions of other readers, I know!). I have read and re-read (and listened and re-listened to, on tape and CD) her novels multiple times over the years; I have read some of her juvenilia (most notably “Love and Freindship” (sic); I have read other authors’ sequels and prequels of her novels; I have read many books about her, both biographies and literary criticism; I have taught her work several times in college Women’s Literature classes; and I made a pilgrimage to her beloved Chawton (where she lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life) and to Winchester Cathedral (where she was buried) about ten years ago. The novels I have read the fewest times are the unfinished ones: “Lady Susan (more or less unfinished); “The Watsons,” and “Sanditon.” These three have in general been rated as definitely worth reading but not at the same level as the six full-length novels. The current issue of The New Yorker (March 13, 2017) contains a fascinating essay by Anthony Lane in which he examines “Sanditon” in the context of its being written as Austen knew she was dying. Lane describes the novel as follows: “Although -- or precisely because – ‘Sanditon’ was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness” (p. 77). He writes of her trademark puncturing of human pretensions, in this case largely about hypochondriacs; she writes, for just one example of her sharp and wonderfully worded appraisals, of “competing invalids.” But besides her depicting human frailties in her usual humorous but pointed way, in this book there is a different context: her own failing health as she was writing it. Lane calls “Sanditon” “a mortality tale,” and goes on to say that “Austen knew as well as anybody that, in the long run, hypochondriacs aren’t wrong. They’re just early. We will all die…. That certainty haunts the book, sharpens the pitch of its comedy, and sets it apart from her earlier works.” Lane’s reflections on “Sanditon” give me a new way to look at this unfinished novel, and I now feel the need to read it again. Parenthetically: Lane also reminds us that this summer will be the bicentenary of Austen’s death, on July 18th, 1817, at the age of 41. I look forward to the writings and events that will ensue.

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