Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Sanditon (Jane Austen's Last Novel Completed) - Jane Austen & "Another Lady"

Summary:  Sanditon -- an eleven-chapter fragment left at Jane Austen's death completed with seamless artistry by an Austen aficionado and novelist -- is a delightful addition to Austen's beloved books about England's upper-crust world and the deception, snobbery, and unexpected romances that animate it.  When Charlotte Heywood accepts an invitation to visit the newly fashionable seaside resort of Sanditon, she is introduced to a full range of polite society, from the reigning local dowager Lady Denham to her impoverished ward Clara, and from the handsome, feckless Sidney Parker to his amusing, if hypochondriachal, sisters.  A heroine whose clear-sighted common sense is often at war with romance, Charlotte cannot help observing around her both folly and passion in many guises.  But can the levelheaded Charlotte herself resist the attractions of the heart?  (Summary from book - Image from thriftbooks.com)

My Review:  In 1817, Jane Austen fell ill and eventually passed away after writing only eleven chapters of her latest novel. The partial manuscript was later published in 1925 but, as you might expect, the short, unfinished text did little to satisfy her fans.  Since then, several attempts have been made to finish Austen's work.  In this edition of Sanditon, Austen's original narrative is left unaltered, but halfway through the eleventh chapter her story is mingled with and then commandeered by an anonymous author known only as 'another lady' (now known as Marie Dobbs) who finishes Austen's famous last work.  In 2019, the BBC released a show by the same name loosely based on Austen's original manuscript.  It was cancelled after one season and ended on a cliffhanger that devastated fans, who longed to for resolution.  I suspect that is why some of you are here, so I'm going to give my thoughts on the book first, but afterwards I'll discuss how this edition compares with the BBC series and if reading it will bring Charlotte and Sidney their happily ever after.

THE BOOK...

After the Heywood family renders assistance to well-to-do Tom Parker and his wife Mary, young Charlotte Heywood is invited to visit their family home in the fledgling beachside resort town of Sanditon.  There she makes the acquaintance of all manner of new people -- most notably, the town's patroness, Lady Denham, and several of her relatives; Adela Lambe, an heiress from the West Indies; and the Parker siblings, Sidney, Arthur, Diana, and Susan.  As with most Austen novels, Sanditon is rife with of matchmaking schemes, a bit of scandal, and a fair amount whispering and misreading of signals.  Charlotte herself is beautiful, intelligent, forthright, and quite taken with observing the comings-and-goings of the town  and drawing conclusions about its inhabitants, especially in regards to one Sidney Parker.  Although she isn't quite sure what to make of the gentleman's behavior, overtime three things becomes quite clear:  Sidney is eligible, incredibly gifted in the art of persuasion, and most definitely up to something.  

I'm not an expert on all things Austen nor am I particularly familiar with her writing style, so it took a few chapters for my brain to adjust to the more classic language.  I wasn't exactly sure when Austen's chapters would end, but at a certain point the writing shifted.  One google search later and, sure enough, I had reached the end of Austin's original text.  The transition wasn't horrifically jarring -- just noticeable.  Instead of feeling like an exact match, it felt like Austen-lite.  I'll probably get skewered for saying this, but while I liked Austen's original storyline, I actually preferred the version that was a bit easier to read.

I wanted to root for Charlotte and Sidney, but halfway through the book I wasn't even sure I liked him very much.  My mixed feelings can likely be attributed to the fact that his personality directly conflicted with other versions of himself already stuck in my head *ahemTheoJamesahem*.  However, this book's Charlotte Heywood didn't really seem that sure of her feelings either and spends a great deal of time going back and forth about it.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised as the uncertainty, quick reversals, and slow acknowledgment of feelings is something Austen is known for (Elizabeth towards Darcy in P&P, Marianne Dashwood towards Colonel Brandon in S&S, Emma Woodhouse towards Mr. Knightley in Emma, etc.)  Charlotte and Sidney get there, eventually, but I would have liked for their attraction to be a bit more obvious for longer, just so I could revel in it a bit.  

Ultimately, this book provides what many are seeking -- closure.  Several characters get their happy endings (though perhaps not the ones you expect) and the real 'tool' of the book is exposed.  I was pleased by all of it. There are several twists toward the end of the book that I didn't see coming, which made the final pages fly and I found that I quite liked how Charlotte and Sidney's ending played out.  

Is it the be-all-end-all?  No.  But it might be as good as you'll find.

THE BOOK V THE TV SERIES 

Are you one of those people who got your heart stomped on at the end of BBCtv's first season of Sanditon only to discover that that the show was unlikely to be renewed?  Are you reading this review hoping to find a book that will give you some closure?  Perhaps, you were a little disappointed the the show was rather spicy and un-Austenish, in some respects, and hoping to find a more palatable version?  I get it.  I am all of those things --  I hated the show's unceremonious end and read this book for the sole purpose of finding a better one.  I also wanted a version where the drawing room floor didn't need to be replaced...if you know what I mean.  Here is my experience...

Comparing these two versions of Sanditon is a bit like comparing apples to oranges; both are fruit, of course, but that is about all they have in common.  The book uses Austen's original words for as long as possible before blending the two and allowing the other author to take over.  The BBC TV series used Austen's material for basic set up, but because of the sped-up nature of television those eleven chapters run out partway through the first (of eight) episodes.  Obviously the setting, initial plot, and most character names are the same for both, but once the original material ran out, the book and the show each took their own creative path.   Some of the characters in the show are similar to those in the book, others are quite changed, and a final few are missing or entirely renamed.  I did enjoy seeing the actors in my head while reading, even if they didn't always have the same names or personalities.  I won't go into all of the characters, but Charlotte is relatively unchanged while Sidney Parker seems entirely different -- more lively and amiable and not at all inclined to brooding or swimming sans clothing.  

I don't want to spoil either version of Sanditon for anyone, so here are some vaguely-worded ways that the book differs from the show.  In the book:  SP doesn't have a ward.  Mr. S doesn't factor in.  There are no accidental meetings on the beach (at least not the one you are thinking about).  No one is rescued in London.  No stonemasons are injured.  No one is burned in a freak bathing incident.  Money is no object.  No step-siblings are 'involved.'  The drawing room floor doesn't need to be replaced (thank heavens).  A certain redheaded snippet remains single.  No one plays cricket or hosts a regatta.  CH's well-known friend doesn't feature.  Nothing significant catches fire.  There.  I hope that helps.  Some of those things I was absolutely thrilled to miss out on.  Others, not so much.

Aside from the last two chapters, much of the book was preoccupied with ordinary conversation and day-to-day activities, like walking on the beach or taking tea, whereas the events of the show were far more suspenseful (e.g. arguments, money problems, forbidden affairs, and scheming).  Taken on it's own, I felt the television version was more exciting, but do feel that it wasn't particularly true to Austen's style of writing, especially when it comes to more adult themes which are virtually non-existent in the book.  

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Do I think that Austen would have written anything like the BBC version?  No, I do not.  Between the two, it is far more likely she would have written something closer to this version.  Readers looking for a conclusion to the story told on BBC will find it very hard to reconcile the characters and events of the book, but it is possible to enjoy it anyway.  Those who simply long to read a version where Charlotte get her happily ever after, will find one here.

My Rating (of the book): 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The book has a few situations that are scandalous for the times, but not overtly sexual (being alone with a man, etc.).  There might be a few instances of 'biblical' profanity.  For those looking to compare -- this book is significantly 'cleaner' than the BBC TV series or the tie-in book, which is different from this one and based off the BBC show (which contains both nudity -- beach bum, if you will -- and sexual situations)  

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