Austen in Autumn

Two hundred years ago this month, Jane Austen put aside her pen for the last time, dating an unfinished novel that has come to be known as Sanditon. Anthony Lane thinks the novel shows that, despite her physical decay, Austen had lost none of her powers: “Although—or precisely because—‘Sanditon’ was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.”

It has an uncharacteristically violent scene near the beginning—an overturned carriage. And it has a contemporary satirical bite that is more submerged in the other novels. Austen takes her characters to a retreat to the seaside health resort of Sanditon. The company includes Sir Edward Denham, “an idiot of a very particular brand. He says, ‘Most willingly, fair questioner,’ when what he means is ‘Yes.’ He reads a lot, which sounds promising, but he reads in order to be emotionally engulfed, and to arm himself for the engulfing of others—specifically, Clara Brereton, Lady Denham’s impoverished niece. What Sir Edward pores over is romantic verse—especially that of Robert Burns, of whom he remarks, ‘His soul was the altar in which lovely woman sat enshrined’—plus those novels which ‘exhibit the progress of strong passion from the first germ of incipient susceptibility to the utmost energies of reason half-dethroned.’”

He’s the sort of sentimentality-addict that Austen skewers throughout her novels.

The novel displays Austen’s “fascination with moaners, groaners, fusspots, and other oracles of self-pity. Think of Mr. Woodhouse, in ‘Emma,’ whose faith in the opinions of his medical friend Perry is equalled only by his terror of sore throats, snow on the roads, and the sea—‘very rarely of use to anybody. I am sure it almost killed me once.’ Then, there is Mary Musgrove, in Persuasion, who claims, one morning, to be ‘so ill I can hardly speak.’” Each of these characters is restless, and they are restless because they have nothing to do. Hypochondria is the virtual illness of the upper class.

Austen pokes fun at their complaints, but Lane shrewdly notes that “Austen knew as well as anybody that, in the long run, hypochondriacs aren’t wrong. They’re just early. We will all die, though probably not from the thing that we feared or foresaw. That certainty haunts the book, sharpens the pitch of its comedy, and sets it apart from her earlier works. It laughs against the dying of the light, and in that laughter there is not a coarseness but a semi-savage edge, as if the energy and the frivolity of a new epoch demanded no less.”

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