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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Sanditon Summer: Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall’s Sanditon,” the subject of today’s Sanditon Summer blog post, is not Jane Austen fanfiction. It’s a darkly funny, stomach-turningly creepy short story that is also a meditation on the way great art can colonize and crowd out the self. It’s the anti-Austen fanfiction, a story about what it’s like for a writer to have nothing inside her – literally – except more Jane Austen. Hanna is a young Canadian book editor and would-be writer who, on a business trip to England, discovers a strange lesion – no, wait, it’s a hole – on her neck. As she peels back the flesh around this hole, she finds. . . the handwritten manuscript of Sanditon, inscribed on the underside of her skin. And it looks like this version of Austen’s unfinished novel may have been finished. The only person Hanna knows in England is Gavin, the married novelist with whom she was having a carefree, slightly inebriated one-night stand when her peculiar medico-literary condition cropped up. At first, Gavin wants nothing to do with this suddenly distressed paramour, but once he realizes what they’re dealing with – a new novel by Jane Austen! – he starts negotiating lucrative publishing deals and appearing on TV talk shows to discuss the literary find of the century. Meanwhile, back at the hotel, Hanna begins peeling back larger and larger expanses of her own skin, slipping a cell phone inside to photograph more of Austen’s words, safety-pinning the edges together afterwards. . . .

Like her protagonist, Marshall (b. 1983) just happens to be a young Canadian book editor, although she’s also a published author of poetry and fiction and a graduate student finishing up a doctorate in medieval studies. “Sanditon” comes from a much-praised story collection entitled Hair Side, Flesh Side, whose striking cover illustration suggests what it might look like to have an Austen novel really get under your skin. “The heart of the story was me trying to figure out a way to navigate my own writing ambitions, to figure out how they stacked up against [the] whole of human literary achievement,” Marshall told an interviewer. “As a writer, it’s easy to feel hollowed out by the work of those people we admire, as if we can’t compete, as if what we do is somehow unnecessary because better, bolder, louder voices have gone before us.” Judging from “Sanditon,” Marshall has plenty to say. The story teeters effectively between comedy and horror, playing Gavin’s eager literary opportunism off against Hanna’s weird compulsion to mutilate her own body in the service of Austen’s novel, this work of art that both is and isn’t part of her. “Sanditon” isn’t a Sanditon completion in any conventional sense – Austen’s characters and setting are virtually never mentioned -- but the exploitative relationship between the smooth, caddish Gavin and the terrified yet fascinated Hanna reads as a twisted version of an Austen plot: Henry Crawford and Fanny Price, transplanted to the world of casual hookups. Marshall isn't writing specifically about Janeites, I don't think, although she certainly does intend the ironic juxtaposition between the emptiness of the central relationship and the fact that it's the words of a writer of "these quirky little romantic comedy things," in Gavin's phrase, that have somehow taken up residence inside Hanna. But if you spend an awful lot of time thinking about Janeites, as I've done over the past couple of years, it’s tempting to see Marshall's arresting metaphor in Janeite terms: as a warning to those writers whose literary efforts amount to the ventriloquism of unsuccessful fan fiction. Surrender your voice too easily – to a man, or to an artist – and you may end up with no words of your own. But the ambiguous bid for freedom that ends the story suggests a second, more hopeful message: that Jane Austen's words, like those of any writer you love, can also nurture your individual voice, at least if you let them get under your skin. Helen Marshall. Sanditon,” in Hair Side, Flesh Side. ChiZine Publications, 2012.

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