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Sanditon Summer: Anna Austen Lefroy

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 20 2013 01:00PM

Anna Austen Lefroy, the second-oldest of Jane Austen’s nieces, inherited the manuscript of Austen’s unfinished Sanditon and was the first writer to try her hand at completing it, as well as the first whose work I'll cover during this Sanditon Summer blog series. From a distance of nearly two centuries, Anna Lefroy’s life has a frustrated, unachieved quality; it seems sadly appropriate that her continuation of the fragment is itself only a fragment.




Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen (1793-1872) – clever, vivacious, perhaps flighty and unstable -- was the oldest child of Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James. She lost her mother as a toddler and spent the next two years living with her grandparents and her doting aunts, Jane and Cassandra, until her father remarried. But Anna and her stepmother, Mary Lloyd Austen, apparently did not get along, and, at twenty-one, Anna escaped into a marriage with Benjamin Lefroy, the son of Jane Austen’s beloved mentor, Madame Anne Lefroy.


The marriage seems to have been happy, but Ben died, at thirty-eight, in 1829, leaving Anna with seven children under the age of fourteen. Her prodigious rate of child-bearing – hardly unusual for the era – had worried Jane Austen. “Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty,” Austen wrote to another niece in March 1817, by which time Anna had already borne two children in two years and suspected she might be pregnant again. “I am very sorry for her.” Indeed, Anna’s long years of widowhood were spent struggling with ill health and straitened finances.


For Janeites, Anna Lefroy’s most substantial claim to fame is as the recipient of letters containing the only sustained literary criticism that survives from Jane Austen’s pen: in the months before and after her 1814 marriage, Anna asked her aunt to read a novel-in-progress titled Which Is the Heroine? Austen’s constructive criticism – about avoiding cliche, ensuring the accuracy of incidental details and taking care to maintain the consistency of characters – needs no updating to be useful to writers today.

But despite her aunt’s encouragement, Lefroy never finished Which Is the Heroine? and years later, one of her daughters reported, she burned the manuscript “in a fit of despondency” – perhaps because it brought back sad memories of the lost, much-loved Jane Austen. Lefroy eventually published two children’s stories and a novella, but the literary life she may have imagined for herself, a life like that of her brilliant aunt, never came to be.


Anna Lefroy’s Sanditon continuation – unknown until it was auctioned in the 1970s – was probably written in the 1830s or 1840s, around the time Lefroy was publishing, argues Mary Gaither Marshall, the editor of the 1983 edition of the work. Perhaps, Marshall speculates intriguingly, Lefroy knew how Austen planned to continue her novel and was trying to fulfill her aunt’s design.


At 113 handwritten pages, Lefroy’s Sanditon is about the same length as Austen’s original, but it barely advances Austen’s plot. Perhaps 20 percent of Lefroy’s version is taken up with the back story of the beautiful, enigmatic poor relation Clara Brereton, portrayed by Lefroy as a selfish schemer who has survived a bad childhood with a feckless father and stepfather.


The rest of Lefroy’s fragment offers a few scenes with Austen’s characters and introduces someone new -- Sidney Parker’s friend, Mr. Tracy, whom heroine Charlotte Heywood instinctively dislikes. Will Mr. Tracy turn out to be an unjustly maligned Mr. Darcy, or something more sinister? Will Charlotte and Sidney pair off, as most readers of Austen’s fragment expect? Lefroy’s version breaks off before we can find out.


In what remains, Lefroy deals very little with the larger issues – sickness and health, the threat and promise of economic development – that it seems likely Austen’s novel would have addressed. Unlike many contemporary Sanditon continuations, however, Lefroy’s version does begin to engage with a third issue raised by Austen’s fragment: race, embodied in the character of the “half mulatto, chilly and tender” West Indian heiress, Miss Lambe. But to contemporary ears, the terms in which Lefroy foregrounds Miss Lambe’s blackness ring with dismal racist stereotypes: “Miss Lambe had a torpid satisfaction in being let alone; stringing her beads, or nursing her dog for two whole days in peace, without being required to go any where or take an interest in anything! What more could her Creole nature desire?”


Still, as even this uncomfortable passage suggests, Lefroy was clearly a writer of some ability. At times, her prose achieves an Austen-like balance and snap. Rain “is always a trying season for the pleasure-seekers of a bathing place, whose first object, after securing their Lodgings is to be as little. . . inside them as possible,” she writes at one point. And at another: “In their general manner of living there was as much attention paid to order & propriety as could consist with an over abundance of children & a scarcity of Servants.”


It’s hard not to feel desperately sad for clever, mercurial Anna Lefroy: widowed early, exhausted by child-bearing, struggling with poverty and depression, and so alienated from her youthful dreams that, one day, she threw her unfinished novel on the fire. Had Jane Austen married young and unluckily, this could have been her fate, too.



Anna Austen Lefroy. Jane Austen’s Sanditon: A Continuation by Her Niece. Ed. Mary Gaither Marshall. Chicago: Chiron Press, 1983.





4 comments
Jun 23 2014 10:00PM by Chris Brindle

I bought the Lefroy manuscripts last Summer, and have written a play version of Sanditon, adapting and completing both Austen & Lefroy fragments. From the play I have, so far, made a 10 minute short film, and aim to make a feature film, subject to raising sufficient finance. You can read about this project at www.sanditon.info

Jun 24 2014 01:23AM by dyaffe

Sounds interesting, Chris -- good luck with the fundraising!

Nov 18 2014 12:59PM by Chris Brindle

Have now made a 40 min Documentary about the writing of Sanditon and have turned the play into a full length film, albeit on a zero budget. The brilliant American composer Amanda Jacobs has written the music for the Documentary and it is absolutely brilliant. Both will shortly appear on Vimeo.
A sample of the music also on the films is "Blue Briny Sea" by Brindle/Byrne/Clubb that's on You Tube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gmrFrEdMBg

Nov 18 2014 01:48PM by dyaffe

Congratulations, Chris -- that's very exciting. Be sure to let me know when your films are available for viewing -- I'd love to see them.

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