Sanditon Summer: Anne Toledo
Critics disagree about Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death. Is it a tired rehash of her previous work, indelibly marked by the exhaustion of her final illness? Is it an accomplished but tragically incomplete version of her classic courtship story? Or is it something more interesting: a new departure for a novelist at the height of her powers, a first stab at portraying an England on the cusp of economic and social transformation? Anne Toledo, the author of the Sanditon continuation featured in today’s Sanditon Summer post, is firmly in the “new departure” camp. Noting that, in Persuasion, Austen prefers the self-made men of the Navy to the landed gentry represented by Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell, Toledo announces that her book takes a similar approach: “This tendency is developed in the value given to independence and to paid employment,” she writes in an introduction. What follows is a bit like a Victorian novel starring Austen characters. Its pages are crowded with events: a scandalous rumored elopement, a troubled pregnancy, a mass food poisoning, a secret engagement, the launch of a successful small business. . . you name it, it’s here.
Toledo (b. 1937) studied classics at Oxford before marrying an Italian, settling in Brescia, taking a second degree in modern languages, and becoming a university professor with a specialty in the nineteenth-century English novel. Under her maiden name, Leslie-Anne Crowley, she has published scholarship on Marlowe, Spenser, Milton and Austen. Given these Eng. Lit. credentials, it’s not surprising that Toledo’s prose and pacing are more accomplished than those of some of her self-published peers. She writes a serviceable Austen pastiche, and for its first two-thirds, the book isn’t bad. Her Sidney Parker and Charlotte Heywood have a reasonably entertaining relationship, and though I can’t imagine Austen setting Clara Brereton up with a successful dressmaking business – you go, girl! – I didn’t mind watching Toledo do so. Alas, the narrative energy begins to flag as the book enters its final third. In her introduction, Toledo explains that she chose to wrap up her courtship plot early in order to concentrate on the fate of economically precarious Sanditon, “allott[ing] the final ‘happy ending’ to the town of Sanditon, as if the resort itself, rather than any one particular character, were the true protagonist of the story.” It’s an interesting idea, but on the page, it falls flat: however atmospheric the sense of place that Austen’s fragment conjures, it’s her people that keep us turning the pages, and once their fates are resolved, we’re just marking time. Especially since characterization, one of Austen’s greatest strengths, is Toledo’s greatest weakness. Abandoning the cutting satire that marks the pages of Austen’s fragment, Toledo peoples her Sanditon with a cast of soppy paragons reminiscent of the least successful figures from Victorian fiction. Sir Edward Denham rapidly repents of his dishonorable intentions toward Clara Brereton and becomes an ardent fiancé. Diana and Susan Parker morph from interfering busybodies into kind and helpful friends. Arthur Parker throws off his sloth and buckles down to professional legal training. Esther Denham’s hypocrisy and money-grubbing miraculously vanish. Even the grasping Lady Denham renounces her mercenary ways as the saintly Clara nurses her through a final illness. After a while, the reader wants to throttle them all. Not for nothing did Jane Austen write, “Pictures of perfection. . . make me sick & wicked.” Anne Toledo. A Return to Sanditon: A completion of Jane Austen’s fragment. Amazon Digital Services, 2011.