Sanditon Summer: Donald Measham
By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 11 2013 01:00PM
Donald Measham’s Jane Austen Out of the Blue, the Sanditon continuation I’ll be discussing today in my ongoing Sanditon Summer blog series, is unlike any other Austen spinoff I’ve read. This is not a bad thing. The marketplace of Austen spinoffs is clogged with the saccharine, the slavishly imitative and the poorly written, and Measham’s book is none of these things. If it’s not, for my tastes, entirely successful in what it tries to accomplish, it is nonetheless an interesting experiment whose results I would commend to the notice of fellow Janeites.
Donald Charles Measham (b. 1932) grew up in Birmingham, England, but has lived for decades in Derbyshire, land of Mr. Darcy. In his twenties, he taught English and drama at a rural, state-funded high school, and he edited two collections of his students’ writings, published as Fourteen and Leaving. He went on to teach English at the college level, to edit a literary magazine called Staple, and to write a number of other books, including a novel about the Victorian art critic John Ruskin; critical works on Ruskin and D.H. Lawrence; and Jane Austen and the Polite Puzzle, which reconstructs a lost Regency card game and speculates about its impact on Austen’s work.
An interesting man, in other words. And Jane Austen Out of the Blue is an interesting book. Its early pages seem to promise a standard-issue Austen sequel of a particular kind – the all-Austen-novels-are-the-same-novel kind, in which characters from, say, Mansfield Park are found hobnobbing with Bennets and Elliots and Dashwoods. (The first published Austen sequel, Sybil Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies, from 1913, is of just this type.)
Measham’s story takes place in the seaside village of Sanditon, but summering there are not only Charlotte Heywood and the rest of Sanditon’s cast, but also the young widows Fanny Price Bertram, Elinor Dashwood Ferrars and Marianne Dashwood Brandon; the pregnant Elizabeth Bennet Darcy, whose husband is traveling in Italy, perhaps to escape marital tension over the absence of a male heir; the still-childless Emma Woodhouse Knightley, with husband, father and sister in tow; and the contented Anne Elliot Wentworth, along with husband and small daughter. Intrigue swirls over development in Brinshore, the summer resort that may challenge Sanditon for primacy; relatives squabble over the recently deceased Lady Denham’s missing will.
Some of the plotting works well and some of it drags, but what lifts Measham’s tale out of the common run is a post-modern counterpoint: the story is refracted through the consciousness of a Charlotte Heywood who seems to be channelling the dying Jane Austen, author of the fragment in which Charlotte herself appears. And Austen is not entirely happy with how her characters' afterlives have been reimagined: “You – supposedly acting for me! – have decimated my clergy, cut back a whole generation of squires and over-provided for the next one, in a manner that should presage a fiction not preoccupy it,” she scolds the wayward heroine and, perhaps, the wayward spinoff author, too.
Quite consciously, Measham is riffing on a phenomenon that is familiar to Janeites: our tendency to see Austen’s characters as realer than real, as fully realized human beings whose stories continue long after we’ve closed the books in which they appear and who can't be entirely controlled by their original author. “The way some characters seem to achieve independent existence, even becoming the stuff of legend – I am interested in all this. It is sometimes called ‘mythopoeia,’ ” he writes in an afterword. “Until the advent of the ‘New Criticism,’ discussing characters as if they were alive, asking what would have happened next, was normal enough. Now it is post-modern, I suppose.”
Measham writes exceptionally well, in a style that at times echoes Austen’s balanced ironies and at others veers closer to modernist stream of consciousness. He engages with the themes of health and hypochondria, development and economic growth, that interested Austen in Sanditon. And he reflects on her literary influences, especially Richardson and Byron.
It’s interesting and thought-provoking, but for me it doesn’t quite work. The book is overstuffed with Austen characters whose fates have diverged from her happy endings, but who have barely enough time on Measham’s stage to register their new directions. The story isn’t engaging enough at the level of plot or character to engross in its own right, but neither is it quite clever enough to wholly work as a sly, post-modern parody of the Jane Austen sequel genre.
Still, I admire the attempt. In an Austen-spinoff world filled with amateurish hackery, Measham has reached for originality and just about attained it.
Donald Measham. Jane Austen Out of the Blue. Lulu, 2006; revised edition 2007.