By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Sanditon was Jane Austen’s last manuscript; it remained unfinished. Austen describes Sanditon as one of many newly built spa towns that had been cropping up along the seashore. Several real-life coastal cities in England have tried to lay claim to being the real-life inspiration for it. However, we ought to consider that Austen was likely putting her readers in mind of a composite, generic town.
Austen’s Knowledge of Commerce and Economics
The snippet of conversation between Mr. Parker, one of the investors in the town of Sanditon, and Mr. Heywood, who sees tourist traps as economically bad, shows how savvy Austen was about debates over commerce and economics. She shows that Mr. Parker stands to gain from the higher prices for everyday goods in a tourist trap. He’ll be one of the people selling them. He also gains from the greater leisure of the working classes, who might come to visit. Mr. Parker stands to gain by Sanditon, as a forward-thinking, or perhaps unthinking, speculator. But Mr. Heywood stands to lose by it, as a traditional landowner and farmer.
Stepping back from the situation, we might say that both men are a little right, as well as very wrong. The ways that they are wrong involve their both being motivated by self-interest. Both men pretend that what’s good for them personally must be what’s good for the country economically.
This is fiction, but it’s based in actual economic issues of Austen’s time.
The Name ‘Sanditon’
Sanditon sounds like Sandy-town, a town full of sand. Most obviously, that points to such a town’s sandy beaches on the sea. But its name may also be meant to call up a house or a project that’s built on sand.
Some critics suggest that perhaps Austen was making a sly biblical reference here. In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, the wise builder builds a house on a rock and the foolish one builds on sand. The house built on sand falls when it’s exposed to nature’s forces. In the Bible, it’s a parable about the need to build one’s life on a strong spiritual foundation. In Sanditon, Tom Parker’s town built on sand may point to his misplaced faith in endless commercial growth or getting rich quick. His blind single-mindedness about Sanditon as an investment certainly looks more like the approach of a foolish builder.
One of the first lines of Austen’s story seems to point to this interpretation. It refers to the road as “half rock, half sand”. So, Austen puts rocks and sand before us right away. Had the story continued, we would surely have seen whether Tom Parker’s optimism bore out or not—whether his Sanditon was more like the biblical house built on rock or the one built on sand.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Hero of Sanditon
However, much remains unanswered about Sanditon because of its unfinished state. There’s even debate over which character Austen meant for her hero.
Most critics agree that Tom Parker’s brother, Sidney Parker, seems the most likely candidate, though in the unfinished novel, we see very little of him.
The other Parker siblings are given a bit more space to unfold in the fragment. They are Tom’s sisters, Diana and Susan Parker, and their younger brother Arthur Parker. All three are invalids—although the narrator leaves us thinking that they fancy themselves ill more than the reality of their conditions warrant.
Tom Parker describes his sisters Diana and Susan with an unintentionally hilarious line. He says that they have “weaker constitutions and stronger minds than are often met with, either separate or together”. Brother Arthur, it’s said, is “almost as great an invalid as themselves” and “so delicate that he can engage in no profession”.
Austen’s Sense of Humor
However, when we finally meet Arthur, it’s in a scene in which he’s shown to have an enormous appetite for rich foods. He drinks copious amounts of hot chocolate and sneaks more butter onto his toast when no one is looking. Charlotte Heywood notices that “Arthur was by no means so fond of being starved as they could desire, or as he felt proper himself”.
This is a brilliant description of a self-conscious, would-be invalid, as described by an author who was herself just then under treatment by doctors. As Austen wrote this, it’s likely that she was having to listen to theories from everyone around her about what was wrong with her, and what she should try to do, or eat, or take for a possible cure.
It’s impressive that, in the face of her own weakening physical condition, Austen could still make fun of people who dispensed medical advice with such confidence. It’s moving that she would create comic characters who exaggerated their own symptoms and the severity of their illnesses. This suggests that Austen maintained, almost to the end, an impeccable sense of humor about life’s embodied difficulties and absurdities.
Common Questions about the Unanswered Questions in Austen’s ‘Sanditon’
The snippet of conversation between Mr. Parker, one of the investors in the town of Sanditon, and Mr. Heywood, who sees tourist traps as economically bad, shows how savvy Jane Austen was about debates over commerce and economics.
Some critics suggest that with the name ‘Sanditon‘, Austen was perhaps making a sly biblical reference. In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, the wise builder builds a house on a rock and the foolish one builds on sand. The house built on sand falls when it’s exposed to nature’s forces. In the Bible, it’s a parable about the need to build one’s life on a strong spiritual foundation.
Diana and Susan are invalids—although the narrator leaves us thinking that they fancy themselves ill more than the reality of their conditions warrant. Tom Parker describes them with an unintentionally hilarious line. He says that they have “weaker constitutions and stronger minds than are often met with, either separate or together”.