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Jane Austen – Sanditon

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Austen’s potential finest?

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1825
Date Reviewed: 9th October 2019
Rating: 5/5

Mr and Mrs Parker are travelling through Willingden in search of a doctor for their small town, Sanditon, when their carriage overturns. Mr Heywood comes to their rescue; the couple end up spending a fortnight at the Heywood family home as Mr Parker is injured. The two discuss with the Heywoods their fabulous residence, a burgeoning spa town in need of more visitors. When they leave they take with them Charlotte, the eldest child of the Heywood family.

Despite there being only eleven chapters, Austen’s last unfinished novel has a lot going for it, both in terms of enjoyment and inevitable contemplation. That the author finished work at the end of a chapter, a bog standard chapter at that (she’d still been setting up the scene), suggests, I reckon, a sudden downturn in her illness; it makes sense that she might’ve put her pen down at the end of that last day of writing with the intention of continuing either the next day or when she felt better. There are, so far as we know, no notes to suggest where the novel was headed.

So reading Sanditon is both a wonderful and a grounding experience. The eleven chapters are excellent, not so much in themselves (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with them), but in what they represent, the promise for the rest of the book. The text presents itself as a bit of a departure from the rest of Austen’s oeuvre. Whilst the author had previously used the seaside, mostly notably in Persuasion, Sanditon has a different atmosphere with its use of leisure, health, and tourism. There are a lot of previously-used devices in it – ‘poorly’ relatives who Austen is keen to show are just attention seekers; book-loving heroines; a potential second Lady Catherine de Burgh who has many relatives looking at her with pound signs in their eyes.

Austen is known to have lived in two spa towns – Bath and Southampton. With Sanditon situated on the coast around the Sussex/Hampshire area, closer to the middle of the coast than Eastbourne, it’s possible she looked to Southampton for at least part of her inspiration. Certainly it has been suggested that she preferred Southampton to Bath1. She stayed in Southampton three times, once in a house that was only a few minutes walk from the beach. (Southampton no longer has a beach – land has been reclaimed – but we know where the house stood and where the water originally came up to.) Whether based on Southampton or not, however, it’s interesting to ponder whether the now city might be more well known in the context of her life than it is had the book been fully realised. Either way, the descriptions of Sanditon are wonderful, full of atmosphere. Although there’s certainly more description in terms of people than place it’s not difficult to imagine the scene.

Sanditon contains echoes of the brilliance of Pride And Prejudice – might that book be less known if Sanditon had been completed? Interestingly, though, Charlotte says a lot less than Elizabeth; she’s more of a device. In Charlotte we can perhaps see further evidence, beyond Northanger Abbey, of Austen’s 18th century writer’s influences. Either way, at least in the chapters we have, Charlotte is more a device to show off Sanditon and its people than a character in her own right. This is quite different for Austen, so it is very possible that Charlotte was yet to come into her own. Perhaps Austen was playing a longer game, writing more slowly, planning a book more lengthy than her others.

Would Charlotte have overtaken Lizzie in our affections? One of the major themes is books. One of the first things the Parkers do upon returning home is visit the subscription library; Charlotte takes out a number of books including Frances Burney’s Camilla, which was also one of Catherine Morland’s reads and so likely Austen’s too. In her descriptions Austen mentions her favourite poet, Cowper, and Voltaire. She spends a chapter on Sir Edward Denham’s fiction preferences. This is where her wit shows best:

    But if you will describe the sort of novels which you do approve, I dare say it will give me a clearer idea.”
    “Most willingly, fair questioner. The novels which I approve are such as display human nature with grandeur; such as show her in the sublimities of intense feeling; such as exhibit the progress of strong passion from the first germ of incipient susceptibility to the utmost energies of reason half-dethroned—where we see the strong spark of woman’s captivations elicit such fire in the soul of man as leads him—though at the risk of some aberration—from the strict line of primitive obligations to hazard all, dare all, achieve all to obtain her. Such are the works which I peruse with delight and, I hope I may say, with amelioration. They hold forth the most splendid portraitures of high conceptions, unbounded views, illimitable ardour, indomitable decision. And even when the event is mainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned machinations of the prime character, the potent, pervading hero of the story, it leaves us full of generous emotions for him; our hearts are paralysed. T’were pseudo-philosophy to assert that we do not feel more enwrapped by the brilliancy of his career than by the tranquil and morbid virtues of any opposing character. Our approbation of the latter is but eleemosynary. These are the novels which enlarge the primitive capabilities of the heart; and which it cannot impugn the sense or be any dereliction of the character of the most anti-puerile man, to be conversant with.”

Really Edward, ‘I love epic romance’ would have sufficed…

There is so much to like about Sanditon, indeed the one and only drawback is that it ends with absolutely no clue as to where it was to end up except that someone will probably be given an inheritance by Lady Denham, and that if Austen has anything to do with it, Sir Edward is going to annoy Clara Brereton. If we consider that a marriage is a likely feature of Charlotte’s future then perhaps the arrival of the Parkers’ relative, Sidney, in the last paragraph, is a hint because it’s unlikely to be Sir Edward.

Footnotes

1 Local historian, Cheryl Butler, holds this view and believes it’s possible we don’t know more about Austen’s time in Southampton due to Cassandra’s burning of her letters. (Information learned from her talk ‘Jane Austen & Southampton Spa’ given at Cobbett Road Library, Southampton, in 2018.)

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Nick Alexander – You Then, Me Now

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Time to jettison the pain.

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (Amazon Publishing)
Pages: 293
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-503-95862-3
First Published: 1st May 2019
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2019
Rating: 4/5

Becky is far beyond the age to know the details about her father but her mother, Laura, has given little information, making excuses all the time. Now a young adult, Becky has had enough; it’s time Laura told her the truth and perhaps a holiday in a place her mother seems to be attached to will help. Past hurts have stopped Laura telling her daughter everything – some things are just too hard to go back to. She’s always struggled with her memories and doesn’t know how to get around them.

You Then, Me Now is a fantastically executed novel that looks at the effects of various types of abuse on personal development. Alexander has created a story that combines the tale of an awful past with other elements that are very pleasant to read. It does this by using a dual narrative that sides more towards Laura’s story (part of Becky’s ‘allocated’ time is spent trying to work out the issues with her mother) but is far from overwhelmed by it.

Laura’s life has never been easy; it started with her mother, whose parenting caused a particularly negative experience. Laura’s mother was beyond strict, with Laura always worried about going so far as a centimetre away from the rules – even as an adult – for the understandable fear that her mother would be on her like a ton of bricks. The effects of all this naturally leads Laura to be very passive in the face of anything she’s not sure about, and she either misses clues entirely or is unable to trust her gut when it comes to assessing the goodness of strangers. This in turn leads her to say ‘yes’ to the sudden offer of a holiday by a man she’s just met who is constantly gaslighting her. So Laura is weak; you may find her frustrating at the start; it’s a symptom of her lack of healing. From start to finish, this part of the story is handled with a lot of care.

Alexander gives his reader something more lighthearted and positive to read about in Becky’s chapters. Becky is looking at her future, using the holiday both as time with her mother and as a getaway for herself. Where Laura’s chapters contain a romance, so too do Becky’s, but the relative relaxed nature of Becky’s romance allows you to relax yourself into the book. The location of the holiday and thus most of the novel, as Laura and Becky leave home soon into the book and Laura’s flashbacks are mostly of events at same location, is the Greek tourist island of Santorini. Alexander’s writing of it is brilliant; you won’t need photos – the descriptions are perfect and very atmospheric. In fact the only thing not so much in its favour is the slightly repetitive use of dinners in restaurants – dinner is expected, but a run down of the meals each time isn’t so much. That said, it does provide more information on Santorini.

Once the book reaches the end of the answers, it turns towards the resolution; this is where the book’s sole problem comes into play. The resolution isn’t entirely unrealistic but it falls in the realms of one-in-a-million and so it’s convenient that it happens. Certainly it keeps the page count under control – Alexander never belabours at any point – but it would’ve been better to have had a resolution that would have taken longer and thus been more credible. This said, as much as it casts a shadow it only casts it over that section – all the deft theme work and time spent on the setting is unaffected, and the ending itself is good.

You Then, Me Now encompasses far more than its name and cover might suggest, and almost in its entirety it achieves its aims with aplomb.

 
Eloisa James – A Kiss At Midnight

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The dream that you wish will come true.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62684-5
First Published: 27th July 2010
Date Reviewed: 1st October 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Soon after Kate’s mother died, her father brought home a new wife – his long-term mistress. Now, her father dead, Kate has the attic room and shoulders all the responsibilities over the servants’ and tenants’ employment; her stepmother will let them go if she doesn’t. Kate would like a simple life – a man who loves her, no matter his rank, would be great. One evening her stepmother tells her she must pretend to be her stepsister, Victoria, and meet a prince; the prince’s approval of Victoria is required for her to marry his nephew, and Victoria is already pregnant so it must happen immediately. Kate leaves the house with Victoria’s doting fiancé and three lap dogs, looking forward to Victoria’s recovery from a minor facial injury so that the pretense can be dropped, but her story is heading in a different direction to the one she hoped for.

A Kiss At Midnight is James’ regency romance retelling of Cinderella (the version by Charles Perrault used by Disney). It stays pretty close to the author’s usual level of historical accuracy but allows for slices of fantasy in terms of dialogue and dress – more modern phrases, for example, have been added where the author spied them a good fit.

The book lies more in the realms of ‘based on’ than usual retelling – cover aside, you could potentially get quite a way through it before the details revealed the concept behind James’ story. The author has made some fairy tale devices more realistic, for example the glass slippers which, it is noted, aren’t made of glass because they’d break – instead they’re made of a material that’s a good alternative. There isn’t a pumpkin. There isn’t any magic. Instead, James has substituted concepts and modified others to suit. The stepsister isn’t evil, in fact she’s rather sweet. Cinderella has a good amount of time to get to know the prince before any decisions must be made.

There are times, however, when, perhaps realising that her story is veering too far from the path, the author uses devices. These do jolt you out of the experience but thankfully normal service is resumed as soon as possible. The sudden, fairy-tale-aligned appearance of a previously unknown godmother, for example, is backed up by an ample backstory to provide reason for the character popping out of nowhere. (The godmother does effectively pop up out of nowhere which, as the story moves on, seems less of a ‘must include her quickly’ element and more of a ‘the original idea was strange, let’s just go with it’.)

The story in general is good, the changes making the retelling better. The characters are well developed and matched, and James has ensured that there’s lots of chemistry. The light humour is great as is the ‘cute’ factor – the dogs, who James has spent an equal amount of time characterising. Less successful is the change to the ball, which is partly due to the reading expectation that it be excellent but also down to James’ choice to use it as a chance to cement the couple’s feelings whilst making it a more passive experience for the heroine – a bit too ‘wait around while I go enjoy the evening’, to hint without spoiling.

A Kiss At Midnight is a very good book, certainly one of James’ best, but its role as retelling has its drawbacks no matter how small.

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Sally Rooney – Conversations With Friends

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A little more conversation, a little less action please.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-33312-7
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2019
Rating: 4/5

On an evening they had performed Frances’ poetry, Frances and her ex-girlfriend-now-friend Bobbi meet Melissa, a published writer who wants to write an article about them. They go to her house; they meet her husband, Nick; they are in awe of the couple’s wealth. The marriage seems unstable. As the acquaintance deepens, Frances’ interest in the semi-famous Nick increases – he seems someone who ‘gets’ her, likes her, for all her lack of personality.

Conversations With Friends is a book about personality in the sense of identity; feminism; power and control; parental abuse and neglect; and mental illness.

Frances is an interesting choice of narrator; it’s a choice that has made the novel the success it is, whilst at the same time it’s almost baffling. It’s all quite clever. Frances is boring; she says she has no personality but really it’s more that she just doesn’t do much. She has a fair bit going for her, including what is described by those around her as a talent for writing, and overall success academically, but she tends to simply follow the directions and choices of others. And, interestingly here, it’s not that others are actively making choices for her – life just happens to her. The concept of no personality was Bobbi’s, and Frances writes as though she’s taken it to heart as simple fact. Frances is a reliable narrator, just a bit of a non-entity; this allows Rooney to put emphasis on people who have fuller lives, who are more passionate, driven, than the narrator. The lack of a personality is something that is pretty belaboured throughout. It’s more of a ‘true’ character voice rather than anything authorial.

Rooney has chosen to tell her story using subtle means, her choices for Frances only extending that. The book requires a lot of attention, more than is obvious – it’s the sort of novel that likely needs a re-read to fully understand because the ‘aha!’ moments happen so late. Conversations With Friends effectively has a layer of depression covering it, like a layer of thick fog you have to see past, get through, work through, in order to appreciate the content, and that takes time. In terms of literary style it’s incredible, this effective fog that you wouldn’t notice just by reading a page or two; so much has gone into it – the words, the content, the place Rooney is coming from – the best way I can describe it is that it’s like the feeling that there’s something between you and the words on the page, a block that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the text, and nothing in regards to anything the text lacks. The experience of reading this book felt, to me, a bit like the experience of reading The Bell Jar, only the depression wasn’t from the characters’ minds as such, and in terms of Rooney it’s only to do with stylistic choices. It’s also not as difficult to read as Plath’s book nor similar.

To him my arm was not important. He was only concerned with making his child feel bad, making her feel ashamed (p. 268).

Conversations With Friends is about depression, generally without use of the word, and not being able to make heads nor tails of life; this, especially, is where Nick comes into the story. Frances’ upbringing wasn’t good, and this has resulted in a lack of self. In fact, Frances’ parents have a lot to answer for. Emotional abuse and neglect is all over this book. Frances’ father has his own problems and her mother often criticises her and tells her what to do as though she’s younger than she is. Frances never seems as old as her peers, and the divide makes a lot more sense when her mother is in a scene.

He told me he thought helplessness was often a way of exercising power (p. 246).

As the book moves into its final pages (though this number is fairly large as the chapters are long), Rooney lifts some of the fog to let you better see what’s going on. This is where some ‘telling’ comes in and it’s unfortunate because, as excellently crafted as the fog is, if it wasn’t for the fog, Rooney’s explanations wouldn’t be so glaring. The content of this section brings into focus the idea of power and control – particularly in relationships – the power seemingly passive people can have over others.

To introduce the feminism:

Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict? These were the kind of things I wrote about in my diary as a teenager: as a feminist I have the right not to love anyone (p. 176).

Conversations With Friends is subtle but far from unenjoyable – in a slightly studious and highly literary way, it has a lot to recommend it.

 
Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place

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Hopefully it is.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Headline)
Pages: 483
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-755-35880-9
First Published: 17th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 13th September 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Daniel is outside; across the fields he spots a man who may have a camera. When he tells his wife she grabs a gun. Living in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, the American is generally used to his wife’s reactions, born as they are from her past. In addition to this – even though it’s a particularly compelling aspect of his life story – there is more, the children back in America and the father he doesn’t want to see.

This Must Be The Place is a novel of multiple subplots and narrators which stretches from the 1980s to the 2010s with a brief trip to the 1940s. An effective family saga in one book, it’s more about the journey of the people and their relationships than any destination.

This book is the sort that will either enthrall you or frustrate you – it’s incredibly literary, the artistry itself the mainstay rather than the content. Daniel, one of the many characters, has built his career on his love of linguistics, and to an extent O’Farrell herself has adopted the study of the subject to use in this book. A lot of the time, the writing is poetry in prose; O’Farrell uses language both for its art and for its characters, with Daniel, the only first-person narrator, the one through which most of her passion has been funneled. You know he’s American, this Daniel who’s in Donegal, Ireland, before he tells you, his dialect matching his home country, the first hint of the linguistics to come.

O’Farrell’s play with linguistics extends to her chapter headings – phrases taken from the main body of the chapter in question; the book’s title is also in the text, as a line of dialogue. It’s an interesting feature because whilst the phrases chosen tend to provide you with a hint of what’s to come, they aren’t always ‘clever’, so to speak, O’Farrell showing a range of concepts that can be used to both similar and differing results. (One chapter is but a series of photos and captions, a fictional auction catalog.) All do, however, link back to the idea of poetry, of meaning in the simplest of phrases. And, most often, you can spot the effort made in each line. It’s all rather stunning.

The characters themselves, away from the artistry, are well written and developed. Development is limited in the traditional sense due to the plethora of people involved: Daniel and the children, and Claudette, his wife, are developed both over the course of the years written about and those before the book begun; the other characters mostly in terms of what came before. None of the adults are particularly nice. The children are pretty great, especially given the variety of poor hands their lives and parents have shown them. But the adults… whilst O’Farrell has indeed created real, believable people, and whilst they have some good traits, they’re difficult to read about, which is another reason this book is about the experience rather than anything else.

To look at the possibility for frustration, then: likely, if you haven’t read the book, are reading this (and have potentially read the views of others), and have weighed up the content in terms of your own interests, you’ll probably have a good idea by this point whether you’ll like it or not. The plot is pretty well formed and, for the number of characters, very detailed, but you do have to piece it all together yourself, and as much as it’s arty is also just a literary device. And sometimes, having to piece it together lessens the impact certain aspects may have. To be sure, not all of them – some of them have a lot of impact regardless of how they’ve been woven through the pages, brief moments that take up mere lines being perhaps what you’ll remember most – but a lot will lose their impact. Chronological order would’ve been better.

On that note of impacts that do work regardless, they relate to up-to-the-minute occurrences. Agency and consent in the medical sphere; gun violence in American cities, written in a way that shows both how awful it is and how usual, now, an occurrence. Then there is the domestic sphere, the family saga aspect evident in the theme of children: conversations and concepts over having them, the effects of the past – things before they were born – on those children, and various parental issues and rights.

There are also a few extra characters that dilute the plot a bit, some familial – presumably included for more background and to show how problems can continue in families – and one in particular that seems to have no bearing on anything else, a person used to show Daniel in a different way where it might have been best to make the chapter another of his first-persons. You also end the book with questions that aren’t resolved, some whole points on their own, others minor details that would nevertheless have rounded it all off further. And for all the characters, one or two aren’t included that may have better explained those that are included.

So, no, not really escapist. Not your usual idea of reading for escape, for fun – the fun is under that more studious, literary, definition.

    Anyway, the older, longer, sluggish Marithe had looked up at the stars [decorative, on the ceiling] and asked her mother, who was sitting in the char opposite, whether it would come back, this sense of being inside your life, not outside it?
    Claudette had put down her book and thought for a moment. And then she said: probably not, my darling girl, because what you’re describing comes of growing up but you get something else instead. You get wisdom, you get experience. Which could be seen as a compensation, could it not?
Marithe felt those tears prickling at her eyelids now. To never feel that again, that idea of yourself as one unified being, not two or three splintered selves who observed and commented on each other. To never be that person again.
    For Calvin, she feels a simultaneous jealousy and pity. He sill has it, that wholeness, that verve. There he is, on the trampoline, completely on the trampoline, not worrying about anything, not thinking, but now what? Or: what if? Pity, because she knows now he’ll g through it. He’ll have to lose several skins; he’ll wake up one day wearing new, invisible glasses (p.456).

This Must Be The Place is a time investment – a long novel, one needing your attention. In terms of its genre, over all the payoff is worth it (certainly I enjoyed it a lot) but it’s not without its problems.

 

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