By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen’s Sanditon introduces us to Miss Lambe, a mixed-race heiress, and one of the most intriguing characters in the story. She is a young woman who comes to Sanditon, with a guardian, in search of better health. One of the contraptions featured in the story is a bathing machine. and one of the cures described is what’s called asses’ milk. Both are mentioned as recommended treatments for Miss Lambe.
A bathing machine was a small house or shed on wheels. It made it possible for a bather to change privately into a bathing costume. It was a covering from neck to toe that was in no way form fitting but was still understood as underwear—something like petticoats.
The bathing machine could be brought by servants, or hired help, directly into the water. After changing clothing, the bather would be assisted out of the shed by the servant and led down a built-in set of stairs, to enter directly into the water; retreating from the water meant going back up the stairs and changing immediately into warm, dry clothing. Both men and women might use a bathing machine, but given the strictures for modesty put upon women, they were especially important for wealthy females. Bathing was done as a single-sex activity, even in the sea.
Given that Sanditon starts off with a carriage crash, it’s easy to imagine that something might have gone very wrong, too, with this vehicle, the bathing machine, had Austen continued the story. She liked to mirror these kinds of happenings in her other books, with one scene reflecting on the other. But this is just speculation.
Asses’ milk, too, is a very interesting little detail for Austen to have dropped into the text for us to parse. It is really fascinating and troubling, the way that lambs, horses, mules, and asses circulate in Sanditon. But it’s important to note that asses’ milk—the milk of donkeys—was an actual medical treatment in this era. It had figurative associations, too. And an ass, then, as now, had meanings that included donkey, buttocks, or a foolish person.
We’re told that the wealthy and awful grand dame of Sanditon, Lady Denham, plans to try to foist asses’ milk off on Miss Lambe as a treatment, as she presumes that the young woman will be consumptive. By that, Lady Denham means that Miss Lambe is likely to have the symptoms of consumption—what we now call tuberculosis, a lung disease. Lady Denham is playing amateur doctor and perhaps trying to sell a product.
Asses’ milk was less creamy and more watery than cow’s milk and thought to be free from any taint of consumption. It was seen as the only risk-free milk for consumptive patients. Miss Lambe’s guardian rejects it, saying that Miss Lambe didn’t have the “smallest symptom of a decline or any complaint which asses’ milk could possibly relieve” and was in any case “under the constant care of an experienced physician” whose “prescriptions must be their rule”. Both of these characters seem far too confident here.
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However, Lady Denham is particularly suspect in pretending to have something to protect Miss Lambe. It’s implied that her real motivation is financial. She seems to treat Miss Lambe like a commodity. She wants to marry her off with her nephew. Austen’s text shows Miss Lambe being made into an object, whether to cure, marry, or fleece. Lady Denham and others would no doubt have attempted to fleece Miss Lambe had the story continued.
So, it’s possible that Miss Lambe was poised to expose the evils of those in Sanditon who are doing the objectifying. Lady Denham is, after all, the woman who delivers the line, “I am not a woman of parade as all the world knows”, describing with flourish and parade her determination to show off her wealth and supposed generosity.
In a later description of the portraits Lady Denham keeps of her two dead husbands, we learn that one, the untitled but rich one, who’s made her parading possible, is seen only in a miniature in an obscure part of the room. Her other late husband, the less wealthy but titled one, is shown off in a large portrait hanging over the mantlepiece. These details suggest that Lady Denham is the ass. This description of the two portraits is where Sanditon breaks off.
The Unfinished Novel
The unfinished novel explores how people used and were used by each other, for self-aggrandizement and financial gain, at a time in the nation when economic prosperity and cultural access were expanding for some but not for others.
Sanditon isn’t just unfinished Austen; it’s the last unfinished Austen. In Sanditon, we’re given an intriguing glimpse into where Austen might have headed next as a fiction writer, had she recovered or survived long enough to complete just one more work.
Sanditon explores health and illness, alongside a complicated cast of characters. The unfinished Sanditon reveals an author at the height of her powers, who, though ill herself, satirizes sickness and exposes injustice.
Common Questions about the Various Themes in Austen’s Unfinished ‘Sanditon’
A bathing machine was a small house or shed on wheels. It made it possible for a bather to change privately into a bathing costume. The bathing machine could be brought by servants, or hired help, directly into the water. After changing clothing, the bather would be assisted out of the shed by the servant and led down a built-in set of stairs, to enter directly into the water.
Both men and women could use a bathing machine. However, given the strictures for modesty put upon women, they were especially important for wealthy females, like Miss Lambe.
Sanditon explores how people used and were used by each other, for self-aggrandizement and financial gain, at a time in the nation when economic prosperity and cultural access were expanding for some but not for others.