Snail-Moving Plot or Riveting Characters?

How Austen’s excessive characterization competes with building eccentric characters in Sanditon

Austen, Jane, and Margaret Drabble. Lady Susan ; The Watsons ; Sanditon. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. EBook.

           As Jane Austen lay in her bed ailing of an unknown disease some 200 years ago, she took to her pen and wrote the beginnings of an auspicious book named Sanditon. Taking place in a fishing village turned resort called Sanditon, the novel begins to explore the intricate relationships of various interesting characters who have amassed there. This novel is told through the eye of our detached heroine named Charlotte who observes people feigning illness, a love-struck seducer, and other odd visitors who have assembled in this village. Through this narrative, we can get a glimpse of the turbulent thoughts that may have been going through Austen’s mind as she lay in her death bed. Although Austen’s unfinished novel failed to deliver a compelling enough plot with its huge emphasis on character development, it was well written with ironic tones.

           Readers who are well acquainted with Austin’s other works may be familiar with her particularly descriptive writing. Rather than telling a story with striking plot twists or an exciting storyline, she prefers to entice readers with highly developed characters. Stories written by her hand become less about the physical happenings of characters and more about how they overcome flaws, prejudices, and reassess one another. Similarly, it seems that Sanditon was headed in a similar direction. Although I found myself slightly captivated with a few odd characters such as Arthur Parker and Sir Edward Denham, I found Sanditon’s storyline a little strained because of the unreliable narratives. While riding up to Sanditon, Mr. Parker describes Lady Denham as “a very good-natured woman” (Austen 166) only to be refuted after our heroine, Charlotte, has a conversation with her and decides that she is “thoroughly mean” (189). Mr. Parker is then judged by Charlotte as “too mild…and not to be trusted” (189).  I began to feel frustrated that Austen took great care in setting up her characters in lengthy chapters only to contradict it later on a few short pages. Even though I can appreciate the intricacies of Austin’s narrative in this incomplete novel, I would have enjoyed it more if it included more engaging conflicts beyond the changing opinions of characters.

           The few scenes or lines that continued to engage me through what would have otherwise been a tedious reading had an undertone of humor and irony. It was hard to miss Austen’s scorn at the various remedies that trended at the time and used the three hypochondriac Parker siblings to show it. Stories of a sister with a persistent headache had “three teeth drawn” (175) to cure it, testimony of their coachman’s sprained ankle miraculously cured through the “immediate use of friction…for six hours” (174), and a brother claiming that two cups of green tea could “take away the use of [his] right side” (202) undermined any seriousness in their characters. One particular scene that was laced thickly with humor describes the Parker brother made cocoa and spreading butter on his toast. After concocting excessively thick cocoa and boasting as a good toaster, he asserts that dry toast is “very bad indeed for the coats of the stomach” (202) and proceeds to thickly coat his toast with butter. Such odd scenes, that endeared me to the characters, seemed almost misplaced in the story and could only be for the purpose of further establishing characters. Because I found Austen’s amusing scenes a very entertaining way to develop character, I was able to keep reading through what would have otherwise been a dreary narrative.

           Admitting that I did find a few fatal flaws in Sanditon, as the writing style and static plot threw me off, I recognize that this story was able to hook me in with a few outlandish lines. As Sanditon had potential, as it had not been given the opportunity to grow as Austen had intended before her untimely demise, I give it the benefit of my doubt and would give this novel a timid three and a half stars.


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