Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time

By Mary Waldron | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
'Sanditon' — conclusion

Incomplete as it is, we can perceive in the twelve chapters of Sanditon that have come down to us the twin targets of Austen's irony - 'cant' and contemporary attitudes to literature. Most of the characters are gathered, and the attack is about to begin. It is futile to try to guess how the story would have developed, for though we can interpret Austen's unique qualities as a writer in the completed work, we cannot reproduce them, and would be foolish to try. But some speculations must be discussed, for, as with the finished novels, questionable assumptions can be made in connection with Sanditon about Austen's views on the purpose of fiction.

Comment on the fragment encapsulates a dissatisfaction with Jane Austen from which most critics have so far been unable to escape. Attitudes have changed over the years, but the reservations have remained. George Henry Lewes is typical of nineteenth-century condescension — Austen deserves, to his way of thinking, but a remote niche among the immortals, because her work, though exquisite, lacks grandeur - 'miniatures' he says, 'are not frescoes'. 1 Twentieth-century critics, especially recent ones, have tried to correct this attitude by identifying an engagement with 'important' large-scale social and economic issues - the missing quality is supplied from present-day concerns. Difficulty in establishing these elements in the novels has usually resulted in the perverse conclusion that she could not have been doing the job very well - that the novels are 'flawed'. The unfinished state of Sanditon is a godsend to critics anxious to close the argument and prove Austen once and for all the serious social commentator that they would like her to be. Since two-thirds of the novel is not there, the task of finding the evidence, against the message of the text, is that much easier than with the completed novels. The strategy is usually to assert that what we have of Sanditon represents a new departure in subject, style and

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