Sanditon is the final novel by Jane Austen: the first twelve chapters exist, written in the early months of 1817, the year she died. We have no clear idea of what it would have been about, despite the introduction of almost all the main characters and a very clear setting in the seaside village of Sanditon. We can presume that the main romance is between Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker, amused and detached observers of the more outrageous characters around them, but neither of them has been given enough of a chance to show their character unfold.

The Parkers are one of the main families in Sanditon. They are promoting it as a new health resort, building new lodgings and trying to attract suitably moneyed and respectable visitors. Most of the Parkers are a hypochondriac lot, in very different ways, full of the latest fads for self-treatment and deprivation; whereas Sidney is the robustly healthy brother who gently mocks them. Much is heard of him in mentions by his family but he only shows up in Sanditon in the final chapter, and gets introduced to Charlotte. We see none of the repartee or friction that would have enlivened their future history.

Charlotte herself is a very strange figure. She hardly speaks; she does nothing; it's as if Jane Austen was first concerned to sketch the plot and other characters, and was going to go back later and add wit, charm, depth, and humanity to her main character. That this is possibly part of how she worked is suggested by the fact that Emma Watson, heroine of the other incomplete novel, The Watsons, is likewise devoid of much personality.

In the cast of characters all are somewhat eccentric, but realistic; there is no-one very bad among them, unless it's the handsome, spirited Sir Edward, who has read far too many of the wrong novels and up-to-date philosophy, and can conceive nothing better than spouting fatuous and hyper-enthusiastic literary criticism, and being a dashing rake and seducer because it would look good in a novel. There's penny-pinching rich Lady Denham, there are the shallow Miss Beauforts, and there is the hugely wealthy half-mulatto heiress Miss Lambe, brought in but with no clue as to how she'll figure in the story.

There is also the lovely and sensible Clara Brereton, faithful companion to Lady Denham, seeing through the impostures of the seducing Sir Edward yet seeming to tolerate him: again, with frustratingly no clue as to what her tribulations in the full story would have been.

Through all this, Charlotte, the sensible, no-nonsense daughter of a gentleman farmer, watches with amusement: this word is constantly repeated, a sign of the unpolished state of the manuscript. Yet she is never witty, never exposes herself. She seethes inwardly at the silliness or meanness of the others, and when she does school herself to reply she almost snaps at them. When she sails close to the wind, the other is always too self-absorbed to notice it could have been rude or ridiculous. She's something like a heroine of Jane Austen's juvenilia, with a barely suppressed Pythonesque fury, and would like to put out the fire, open the windows, and fling all their useless medicines into or out of one or the other. In revising the novel, Jane Austen would certainly have filled her humanity out, but toned her down for public consumption.

What Sanditon does have in buckets is modernity. It's Jane Austen's first thoroughly nineteenth-century novel. It reads like Dickens in parts. These are speculators, building up a fashionable new resort, dominated by economics, talking about economics all the time. It's not the timeless pastoral village and halls of her earlier novels. It's not the time when people were reading about Nelson's victories with amazement and pride, but the time when they're naming things Trafalgar House and Waterloo Crescent because they'll sell better.

Sanditon is an extraordinary foretaste of what Jane Austen would have done had she lived out the life she should have.

It was only published in 1925, by Jane Austen's most comprehensive editor R.W. Chapman; though parts of it had been published by her nephew in 1871, along with some of her other minor works and letters, in his memoir of his aunt.

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