For many years people thought it was Addisons disease,. Then many thought she was suffering from Hodgkins Lymphoma, a virulent cancer. The latest diagnosis is bovine tuberculosis which is caught by drinking unpasteurised milk.
The symptoms of this illness do not make pleasant reading. Jane would have suffered chronic bouts of coughing, regular fevers, night sweats; she would be spitting blood stained sputum and she would have had sever weight loss.
Despite this, Jane was still writing. We have letters from her to various members of her family , the last dated Thursday 29th may 1817. She wrote to Francis Tilson from Mrs David’s, College Street, Winchester,
“My attendant is encouraging, and talks of making me quite well.”
She was positive and hopeful to the last. But not only letters, Jane began a new novel in January 1817 that she called, The Brothers. This was later renamed, for publication, by her own brother Henry, Sanditon. She abandoned writing it on March 18th.
Sanditon is a gem of a piece. It is an uncut diamond. It sparkles with her wit, intelligence, and genius. It is biting and insightful. It is her last shout at the world she knew. I say, shout, because as we know Jane was a private person. She courted no publicity, but the mere power of her ideas whispered in her quiet corner of the world are so powerful they gain velocity and volume by their meaning.
Jane’s last work is 55 pages long. It is written, as she wrote her letters, with abbreviations and ampersands. It is a work in progress.
The story of Sanditon is the story of the changing world Jane lived in. It is about the development of a new type of town, the holiday seaside resort. The development of the seaside towns we have nowadays all originate from that Regency Period. Places such as Weymouth, Bournemouth, Brighton Worthing and Eastbourne. They are all along the South Coast of England.
It tells the story of Mr Parker, who in conjunction with wealthy Lady Denham, has bought land and property in a small fishing village called Sanditon. They are in the process of building Regency terraces, villas and hotels. They have also built a library which was thought necessary and suggests they were trying to attract a certain class of person.
The themes Jane is writing about are the themes that were obviously concerning her in the last year of her life. There is the development of the new town and what that process might be, but there are some more human concerns. She attacks the reading of sentimental novels that have no depth. She attacks the use of titled names.
Sir Edward uses his name and fine, meaningless words, that he has gleaned from sentimental novels, to especially woo the ladies. Charlotte Parker, the heroine of this novel, is astute and could be one of Jane Austen’s most intelligent female characters. She sees through Sir Edward, his façade, his use of big words and his shallowness of character, very quickly. Charlotte is like Jane herself, not the marrying type at all, because she is far, far too intelligent.
There is a nice cameo idea where Charlotte decides not to spend her money on the brooches and pendants on sale in the library (the gift shop.) The seaside holiday resort we have today has seen the development of the tacky retail outlet. Shopkeepers in holiday resorts are experts at attracting us to spend money on what is virtually,”rubbish.”
The theme Jane hits on that is most poignant, is hypochondria. Mr and Mrs Parker’s relations, Arthur, Diana and Susan believed themselves on the brink of some dire and death threatening disease. When they appear in Sanditon it is a surprise to realise how healthy and fit they really are. But they complain and talk about their health all the time.
It is ironic to think that Jane herself, dying from her own terrible affliction, states powerfully in this story that she believed that people should rise above their afflictions and continue with life as usual.There are lots of hints and ideas within the story, metaphors that seem to go unused or suggest a deeper meaning that is not fulfilled. We can only guess that these would have been developed if the story was complete.
At the start of Sanditon Mr and Mrs Parker are in search of a physician and they don’t find one or do they? This could be for themselves because Mr Parker sprains an ankle when their coach overturns, it could be for their stated reason, to find a physician to tend to the sick of Sanditon, it could be for their own relations or it could be a metaphorical physician to heal Sanditon because the development of the town is not going well. They persuade the Haywoods, who they meet on their travels and stay with while Mr Parker’s ankle heals, to take their beautiful daughter Charlotte with them. Charlotte, wise, very intelligent and a strong character, could be “the physician,” for Sanditon. She has a clear sharp vision of the world and people around her. The novel doesn’t develop far enough for us to find out what influence Charlotte does have in the end.
Jane called the story, The Brothers. This might suggest that Mr Parker and his brother Arthur may have more of a role together as the novel, would have progressed.
In it’s present form, Sanditon, is a better title.
The story finishes abruptly when Charlotte, who has met Lady Denham in the home of the Parkers on many occasions, goes to visit Lady Denham in her own home, Sanditon House, for the first time. She is waiting for Lady Denham in the waiting room admiring the portraits of Lady Denham’s two dead husbands.
Jane herself must have been in similar rooms and for a similar purpose, visiting to take tea with an acquaintance in their big house.
Perhaps Jane felt at the time she wrote this, that she too was waiting, waiting for the afterlife.
There are some very powerful themes and ideas in this short last piece to get your teeth into.
It is a statement of Jane’s thoughts and views as she was dying. I hope nobody thinks of polishing it or trying to complete it. It is a perfect jewel in it’s own right. It is Jane’s true voice. It left me with a powerful feeling that I had touched a little of the human condition. It changed me.
Returning to my description of Sanditon as Jane Austen’s, “last shout.” It reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s poem;
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Posted by Tony Grant, London Calling