The creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries will soon launch a mini-series based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, so in preparation I re-read the original this week. The 12 chapters of Sanditon, which fill 70 pages in my edition, are the last pieces of imaginative prose that Jane Austen wrote before she was overwhelmed by the illness that killed her at 41. For a Janeite, reading Sanditon is a bittersweet experience. The sweet is obvious: it’s just so good. With authority and confidence, Austen does just what she praised in her niece Anna’s novel-in-progress: “You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life;–3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on.”
In swift, funny scenes, we meet Tom Parker, a property developer intent on turning the sleepy seaside village of Sanditon into the latest fashionable watering-hole; his hypochondriacal siblings, Diana, Susan and Arthur; his stingy business partner, Lady Denham; her beautiful but enigmatic young protegee, Clara Brerton; and the ridiculous Sir Edward Denham, who fancies himself a Lovelace-like seducer. The heroine, Charlotte Heywood, watches them all with self-contained amusement, and just as the fragment ends, we get a tantalizingly brief glimpse of the man who seems likely to be her match, the fifth Parker sibling, Sidney. Along the way, Austen sketches character with her usual brilliant economy: Tom Parker is “of a sanguine turn of mind, with more imagination than judgement”; sweet, passive Mrs. Parker is “the properest wife in the world for a man of strong understanding, but not of capacity to supply the cooler reflection which her own husband sometimes needed.” Diana introduces herself in a letter that brims with narcissism and officiousness; Sir Edward babbles about Scott and Burns until the wry Charlotte, who began by admiring his good looks and fine manners, concludes he is “downright silly.” It was shaping up to be a great book; she just ran out of time. And therein, of course, lies the bitterness. Sanditon, in its unfinished brilliance, stands for all the novels that died with Austen, all the great characters we might have met, all the compelling stories she might have given us. What a loss.