Sanditon Summer: Marie Dobbs
By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2013 01:00PM
The best-known and most widely admired completion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon -- and the subject of today's post in my Sanditon Summer blog series -- was published in 1975, the bicentenary of Austen’s birth. Originally credited to “Another Lady” – a coy nod to Austen’s own decision to publish pseudonymously, as “A Lady” – this Sanditon is in fact the work of Australian-born novelist and journalist Marie Catton Dobbs (b. 1924).
Dobbs and her husband -- a distinguished diplomat described at his death as “Britain’s leading Kremlinologist during the Cold War” – met while working in Moscow after World War II and lived in Russia, India, Poland, Italy and Yugoslavia before settling in Somerset, England.
In addition to her Sanditon completion, Dobbs published four other novels under three different pseudonyms: apparently because of a disagreement with her publisher, an early crime novel was attributed to both “Marie Cotton” and “C.M. Catton”; and three later books were credited to “Anne Telscombe.” Confusingly, editions of Dobbs’ Sanditon – otherwise virtually identical, as far as I can tell – can be found online attributed variously to Marie Dobbs, Anne Telscombe and “Another Lady.”
Whatever the name on the title page, it’s clear from the get-go that this Sanditon is the work of a professional. The prose is lucid, the plot ticks along smoothly, and the appealing hero and heroine – Dobbs follows Janeite conventional wisdom in putting Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker at the center of her courtship plot – spar and spark charmingly, on their way to a satisfying conclusion.
Why, then, does Dobbs’ Sanditon leave me a teensy bit cold? The answer, I think, points up the pitfalls for those Austen fan-fic writers who aim to write not a zombie mashup or a swashbuckling melodrama but, instead, something that could pass for another Jane Austen novel.
Dobbs seems to have assembled all the right pieces: a prose style that serviceably mimics Austen’s; a cautious, Elinor Dashwood-like heroine surprised by love; a witty and warm-hearted hero, in the Henry Tilney mold; and a handful of secondary characters – Diana and Arthur Parker, Clara Brereton, Sir Edward Denham -- whose personalities closely resemble those of their Austen prototypes.
Yet somehow the result is only a pale approximation of the original, like a photocopy of a photocopy. Missing is the sharp edge of Austen’s satire, embodied in those deceptively polite sentences that finish with a sting in the tail. Dobbs virtually ignores the larger issues (illness and health, economic development, race) that Austen’s fragment opens up, opting instead to tell a safe, gently humorous love story.
“Ever increasing numbers, seeking to escape the shoddy values and cheap garishness of our own age, are turning to the past to catch glimpses of life in what appear to be far more leisured times,” Dobbs writes in an afterword that makes clear her nostalgic, traditionalist view of Austen. “In rereading Jane Austen, we are able to experience something of that age of elegance which too often eludes us in the twentieth century. We are unrepentant about this form of escapism.”
Nothing wrong with that, of course – plenty of Janeites share this view of Austen, and Dobbs’ Sanditon is a pleasant beach read. For me, however, Austen’s novels amount to something a good bit tougher, and fan fic authors who imagine they are paying tribute to her by writing sedate love stories invite unflattering comparisons.
Marie Dobbs. Sanditon – A Novel by Jane Austen and Another Lady. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975; reprinted by Simon & Schuster, 1998.