By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
When Jane Austen died, she left behind a number of writings in manuscript. Two were left unfinished; one of them was Sanditon. Austen began writing Sanditon in January 1817, when she had already taken ill. Over the next three months, she completed 11 chapters and started a twelfth. Then the story was set aside, as her condition took a turn for the worse. She was apparently never able to return to it.
‘The Last Work’
For six decades after Austen died, the public had no idea she’d left behind any unfinished work. In the 1870 memoir of her life, there was a brief mention made of the story we know as Sanditon. James Edward Austen-Leigh, Austen’s nephew and her memoir’s editor, called it simply ‘The Last Work’ because it had ‘received no name’, or no title, from Austen herself. Her nephew didn’t think much of the work’s quality. He refers to it as “so little advanced”. He declares that there’s no perceptible heroine. He concludes, “Such an unfinished fragment cannot be presented to the public.” He published two other works for the first time, Lady Susan and The Watsons, but he held back ‘The Last Work’.
The manuscript of ‘The Last Work’ wasn’t printed for the first time until 1925, more than a century after Austen’s death. Then, it was titled, Fragment of a Novel, by its editor R. W. Chapman. But on the spine of the book was printed the word Sanditon. Chapman notes in his introduction that the Austen family tradition had called it Sanditon. There’s also some evidence that the family had once referred to it as The Brothers. But Sanditon is the title that stuck.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
First Scene of Sanditon
The story of Sanditon opens dramatically. Its first scene involves a carriage accident. This is how it begins: “A gentleman and a lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand.”
The injuries are minor, but the carriage itself is heavily damaged. That opening scene may be said to serve as metaphor for the character of Mr. Tom Parker. He’s both literally and figuratively rolling ahead, into risky new business dealings, without attending to the bumps in the road.
The accident has some fortunate outcomes, too. It brings together its passengers, the gentleman and lady introduced to us as Mr. and Mrs. Tom Parker, with a large family called the Heywoods. The Heywoods live near the road where the Parkers’ carriage accident occurs. It’s the Heywoods who rush to offer help to the Parkers.
We soon learn that Tom Parker is one of the investors in the town of Sanditon. It’s described as one of many newly built spa towns then cropping up along the seashore. These towns were fashionable with tourists and with speculators, or investors. Investors set out, like Tom Parker, to gain in riches, power, and reputation by developing land.
Tourists then were in search of leisure and entertainment at the seaside. Some were also medical tourists, traveling in search of better health. They went to spa towns to get access to medically recommended treatments, including fresh air and sea-water bathing. Sanditon gives us a chance to further our knowledge of the medical industry of Austen’s day and her take on it.
The story of Sanditon moves forward after the Parkers’ carriage is repaired and Mr. Parker’s sprained ankle is healed. The Parkers return to the road in order to head home. But as a gesture of gratitude to the Heywoods, they take along the family’s eldest daughter, Charlotte Heywood, age 22. Most readers of Sanditon see Charlotte as the probable heroine of the unfinished story. The rest of the action takes place in the town of Sanditon itself. We’re often led to see its features and its people through the outsider Charlotte’s eyes.
Sanditon: A Character in the Text
It’s crucial, too, that Sanditon is presented almost like a character in the text. The town of Sanditon is called Tom Parker’s “second wife and four children” and “hardly less dear, and certainly more engrossing”, so it’s presented as if it were almost a person. It’s said Tom Parker could talk about Sanditon “forever”. It was “his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse; his occupation, his hope and his futurity”, according to the narrator.
To describe a town as a wife, job, and legacy is to expect a great deal from a place. The clear-headed Mr. Heywood, Charlotte’s father, a traditional landowner, once offhandedly described it as “some new place or other starting up by the sea and growing the fashion”. Mr. Heywood believes that such new spa towns are “Bad things for a country—sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing.”
So, Mr. Heywood’s view is meant to provide an alternate view to Mr. Parker’s being so gung-ho for Sanditon, but it doesn’t mean it’s any more sensible. In fact, it’s also selfish. Mr. Heywood doesn’t want the growing domestic tourism industry to force him to pay more for the things he buys or to have trouble hiring the working-class laborers he relies on.
Common Questions about Austen’s Last Work
The manuscript of ‘The Last Work’ was printed for the first time in 1925, more than a century after Jane Austen’s death. Then, it was titled, Fragment of a Novel, by its editor R. W. Chapman.
Tourists in Jane Austen‘s time were in search of leisure and entertainment at the seaside. Some were also medical tourists, traveling in search of better health. They went to spa towns to get access to medically recommended treatments, including fresh air and sea-water bathing.
Mr. Heywood offhandedly described Sanditon as “some new place or other starting up by the sea and growing the fashion”. Mr. Heywood believed that such new spa towns were “Bad things for a country—sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing.”