Monday, March 13, 2017
Austen's final novel and the shadow of death
It's great and appropriate that the final words Jane Austen composed were a quip: describing the salon of a wealthy woman twice widowed she notes that that the portrait of her first husband is a miniature and that it must distress him to take a second billing in his own household. With that she put down her pen and never completed her final novel, Sanditon. A pity, because it's a novel that gets off to a great start (11+ chapters, about 70 book pages), and it's been "finished" through several attempts by other authors over the past century. (I stopped reading at the point that Austen stopped writing; I was slightly curious as to whether the other authors could even approach Austen's style, but didn't want to dilute the beauty of her prose by going further into the muck.) Sanditon has the usual Austen array of characters: a completely oblivious and narcissist wealthy matron, kindly gentlemen with malicious, meddling, or malingering siblings, the usual barbs at the self-pitying hypochondriacs, and most notably the young woman without fortune but with wit and acuity who makes her way in the world of the slightly wealthier. One element in Sanditon that I don't think we see in any other Austen novel is the entrepreneurial civic boosterism that drives the main male character, Mr. Parker: He is set on turning his small eponymous coastal town into a seaside resort to rival Bath. His spirit and drive seems almost American - in no other Austen novel that I can think of are the main characters motivated by earning money (emphasis on earning). Though Austen was clearly in ill health when writing Sanditon, it doesn't in any sense have the feeling of being written in the shadow of death; in fact her last completed novel, Persuasion, has much more of a valedictory feeling (a somewhat older heroine, winning her long-lost love after years of separation). If anything, Austen snubs her nose at those who focus on illness and death - much more than in Emma - setting her sites on the sickly Parker siblings: You can almost sense her thinking: Get over it, you don't know what real suffering is like.