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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Sanditon Summer: Alice Cobbett

Jane Austen fan-fiction writers -- including the authors of the Sanditon spinoffs I'm blogging about this summer -- can be divided into two categories: those who are trying to write, essentially, another Jane Austen novel (domestic, realistic, short on plot); and those who use Jane Austen’s raw materials to write something completely different (a zombie tale, a melodrama, a detective story). Alice Cobbett’s Somehow Lengthened falls squarely into the second category. Beginning with its disarmingly goofy title and proceeding through a narrative replete with a Caribbean love potion, a kidnapping, a near race riot, a blindfold nighttime journey over rough terrain, a smuggling gang, a dying prostitute, and a filthy-rich countess with a philanthropic bent, this Sanditon completion will never be mistaken for the kind of book Jane Austen would have written. That doesn’t prevent it from being quite a lot of fun. Alice Mary Violet Cobbett (1872-1942) was the eldest child of a pioneering British sports journalist, Martin Cobbett. After her father's death, she edited two collections of his articles, prefacing one of the books with a short, affectionate memoir of his life. Although she listed her occupation as “playwright” in the 1911 British census, I found no online evidence of plays published or produced; besides Somehow Lengthened, Cobbett seems to have published only one other novel. Part of the inspiration for her Sanditon completion may have been geographic: much of Cobbett’s life was apparently spent in or near Sussex, the coastal county in southeast England where Austen set her fragment. In a brief introduction to Somehow Lengthened, Cobbett asserts that Austen’s Sanditon must have been modeled on Hastings, the real-life Sussex town near which Cobbett herself was then living.

However accurate or inaccurate this claim, realism is not the keynote of Cobbett’s Sanditon completion. Instead of reprinting Austen’s fragment, Cobbett instead spends her first few pages quickly summarizing the events that brought Charlotte Heywood to Sanditon. For a while, the book continues in a semi-Austenian vein, reintroducing many of Austen’s characters, including the half-mulatto Miss Lambe, whose public stroll with a black slave causes such a stir among Sanditon folk that violence nearly ensues. But halfway through the book, Cobbett abandons any attempt at a sedate domestic tale and gives herself over entirely to the joys of melodrama, as the intrepid Charlotte accompanies Sidney Parker on a desperate undercover mission to rescue the kidnapped Clara Brereton from the clutches of the unscrupulous Sir Edward Denham. It’s entirely implausible, frequently cliched and curiously entertaining: the first Regency-themed Nancy Drew mystery. Although Cobbett seems mostly bent on fun, hints of serious purpose surface here and there. Like Anna Lefroy, Cobbett engages more fully than recent authors of Sanditon fan fiction with the racial issues raised by Austen’s fragment. Her tone is uncertain -- contemporary readers may wince at the repeated mentions of the woolly hair and gleaming white teeth of Miss Lambe’s black slaves -- but Cobbett also implicitly blames Miss Lambe’s lazy and entitled behavior on the corruption bred by slave-plantation life. Cobbett writes quite well, though her workmanlike prose bears little resemblance to Austen's crackling wit and sometimes strays beyond nineteenth-century vocabulary; the phrase “gratuitous sex-bias” is just one of the giveaway anachronisms. In fact, however, it’s in Cobbett’s implicitly feminist approach that the greatest interest of her story lies. Throughout Somehow Lengthened, men make messes and women clean them up, sometimes by deliberately leaving the blundering, hot-tempered members of the opposite sex in the dark. The curiously offhand, unromantic way in which Cobbett wraps up her courtship stories (no spoilers here!) also hints at some ambivalence about the traditional marriage plot. By the time Lady Westborough, the aforementioned rich and philanthropic countess, explains to the naive Charlotte how the sexual double standard can blight the life of even a blameless young woman, I found myself less interested in Cobbett’s Sanditon than in Cobbett herself: lifelong spinster, admiring daughter, would-be professional writer -- and, perhaps, Edwardian feminist. Alice Cobbett. Somehow Lengthened: A Development of “Sanditon” (Jane Austen’s fragmentary last novel). London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1932.

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