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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.)

 
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 but 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.

 
L M Montgomery – Anne Of Avonlea

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No longer just of the gabled house.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult/Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Vintage Classics: 978-0-099-58265-6)
First Published: 1909
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Having decided to stay on in Avonlea, Anne prepares to become the new teacher of Avonlea’s school. Marilla goes to visit a distant in-law; with the lady on her deathbed, Marilla and Anne decide to help, and have her twins sent to live with them. Dora is quiet and good, but Davy turns out to be more trouble than Anne ever was. With new pupils at school, the forming of the Avonlea Village Improvement Society, and a new next door neighbour, there will be plenty to keep Anne busy while she continues her studies at home.

Anne Of Avonlea follows directly on from Anne Of Green Gables and is set in the two years following, ending with Anne at 18 years of age. Though a somewhat forced publication1, it reads as a well-planned sequel.

“Priscilla says Mrs. Pendexter’s husband’s sister is married to an English earl; and yet she took a second helping of the plum preserves,” said Diana, as if the two facts were somehow incompatible.

This book is, for many reasons, better than the first: the use of language is better; it’s got a strong comedic aspect to it; and, most importantly, it has a proper plot. Montgomery seems to have come into her own; she even breaks the fourth wall a few times.

The plot – well structured and nicely balanced between the predictable and the not so – fits together with the same use of community and spirit as before. Anne’s sense of purpose is well-defined, and in her role of teacher, Montgomery has the opportunity to create a plethora of new characters.

The new characters are super, especially the twins. Like Anne, you know they’re going to need time and patience. The humour from Davy is top-notch.

“Milty drawed a picture of Anne on his slate and it was awful ugly and I told him if he made pictures of Anne like that I’d lick him at recess. I thought first I’d draw one of him and put horns and a tail on it, but I was afraid it would hurt his feelings, and Anne says you should never hurt anyone’s feelings. It seems it’s dreadful to have your feelings hurt. It’s better to knock a boy down than hurt his feelings if you must do something. Milty said he wasn’t scared of me but he’d just as soon call it somebody else to ‘blige me, so he rubbed out Anne’s name and printed Barbara Shaw’s under it. Milty doesn’t like Barbara ’cause she calls him a sweet little boy and once she patted him on his head.”

As Anne is back home, we get to see more of Diana, and Gilbert returns often. (Suffice to say Anne uses his name in this book, and that promise of romance starts to lay down its foundations.)

Theodore White’s was the next stopping place. Neither Anne nor Diana had ever been there before, and they had only a slight acquaintance with Mrs. Theodore, who was not given to hospitality. Should they go to the back or front door? While they held a whispered consultation Mrs. Theodore appeared at the front door with an armful of newspapers. Deliberately she laid them down one by one on the porch floor and the porch steps, and then down the path to the very feet of her mystified callers.
“Will you please wipe your feet carefully on the grass and then walk on these papers?” she said anxiously. “I’ve just swept the house all over and I can’t have any more dust tracked in.”

So you’ve plot, excellent jokes, fabulous characters, and even some winning subplots. The only thing at odds is Anne herself. Anne’s talkative nature is subdued from the very first pages and Montgomery rarely pays it attention. Likely the reason for the change was down to that idea of growing up and maturing and in its day that probably worked; nowadays we’re more apt to question it. Technically the lack of talk (there is some, and there are some day dreams, too, just not many) means you can focus on the rest of the content, but the reality is you spend time wondering where Anne went. You might want her back.

Anne Of Avonlea is a wonderful book, and a lot more adult-orientated, but that does come at a price. Nevertheless it is still entirely worthy of your time; it’s surely one of the finest books of its day.

We make our own lives wherever we are, after all… college can only help us to do it more easily. They are broad or narrow according to what we put into them, not what we get out. Life is rich and full here… everywhere… if we can only learn how to open our whole hearts to its richness and fulness [sic].

Footnotes

1 Montgomery’s publishers had said that if the first book did well, she’d have to write sequels. In 1908 she wrote in a letter: “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick. I feel like the magician in the Eastern story who became the slave of the ‘jinn’ he had conjured out of the bottle.” In the next letter she sent, she calls Anne ‘detestable’ (Montgomery to Weber, 10th September 1908, and 22nd December 1908, cited in Lefebvre, 2013, p. 410).

References

Lefebvre (ed) (2013) The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Vol 1, University Of Toronto Press, Toronto

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L M Montgomery – Anne Of Green Gables

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Anne with an E – please remember that as without the E it sounds very different…

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult/Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Vintage Classics: 978-0-099-58264-9)
First Published: 1908
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

When a friend says she’s going to adopt an orphan to help her at home, siblings Matthew and Marilla ask her to arrange for a boy to be sent to them so that Matthew can have help on the land. The day dawns; Matthew heads to the station to collect the child but finds only a girl – there’s been a mix-up. It’s too late in the day; with no way to send Anne back, Matthew takes her home to Avonlea. The idea is to get the mix-up sorted out, but the siblings find themselves becoming attached to the peculiarly-dressed, red-headed, eleven-year-old who rarely stops talking.

Anne Of Green Gables is a fairly short novel about the new life of a neglected orphan and the impact she has on those living in her new town. Set 30-odd years before it was written, and covering Anne’s first double digit years (she ends the novel aged 16), the book offers a good span of time to get acquainted with its colourful cast of characters, its likeable heroine, and its practically idyllic setting in semi-fictional rural Canada.

The first book in a long series, Anne Of Green Gables has for some time been considered children’s fiction, the publicity materials for it looking in that direction. The story does align with younger people, however it’s worth noting that Montgomery wrote it for all ages (Wikipedia, n.d.); there’s a lot here for adults that children may not necessarily appreciate, to the extent that whilst the plot might not be particularly compelling for older readers, the rest of it is. It’s never too late to read this book.

Thankfully, the plot itself is of little import, which is just as well because it’s effectively a cycle of similar events as Anne makes a mistake (or is thought to have made a mistake, given past events) and reacts to it. Montgomery was inspired by ‘formula Ann’ orphan stories of the time, which accounts for it all – her use of Anne, with that E, relates to it (ibid.), but whilst we may have moved on from being able to appreciate that context, there is much enjoyment to be had in the author’s characters, setting, and use of humour. Albeit that the mistakes do follow a formula, they are funny in their turn; Anne gives her friend a tumbler of alcohol instead of a child-friendly cold drink, and dyes her hair green.

“Don’t be very frightened, Marilla. I was walking the ridgepole and I fell off. I expect I have sprained my ankle. But, Marilla, I might have broken my neck. Let us look on the bright side of things.”

Anne talks, a lot. She day dreams, a lot. But she’s a pretty thoughtful and clever girl. Through her monologues, Montgomery shows well the psychological effects her previous neglect has had, and you see the slight changes over time. Looking at Anne from our present-day perspective, it’s reasonable to say she may well have had ADHD1. Learning is slow but sure.

So in Anne’s monologues there is real purpose, Montgomery using her chatty heroine to show so much; it’s an interesting way of getting around telling, as Anne is actually telling people things but as a character in a story, and with her young age and obliviousness, it becomes the very definition of ‘showing’. The promise of a romance to come is given via Anne’s skirting round the name of a boy, the value of friendship shown in descriptions and ideas, and the importance of dreaming very effectively explained even though the day dreaming in the book tends to hinder work. The relationships Anne has with her friends, with the older people of Avonlea she wins over, and even with those she doesn’t get on with, are wonderfully portrayed.

For Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All “spirit and fire and dew,” as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity. Marilla felt this and was vaguely troubled over it, realising that the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardlyon this impulsive soul and not sufficiently understanding that the equally great capacity for delight might more than compensate.

For the repetitive cycle of events, it can be hard on occasion to keep reading without wondering if it’s going to ‘go’ anywhere, but the positives do outweigh the negatives. Anne’s general positiveness is compelling, her tendency not to conform with social rules that create discomfort is satisfying… and it’s just impossible not to like her.

Footnotes

1 For an in-the-know discussion, see the ADHD subreddit thread: Anne Shirley Had ADHD In Anne Of Green Gables

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d.) Anne Of Green Gables, accessed 5th March 2019

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Eloisa James – A Duke Of Her Own

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Searching for a lady worthy of receiving the Spice Girls’ ‘Mama’ on compact disc.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages:
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62683-8
First Published: 28th July 2009
Date Reviewed: 18th December 2018
Rating: 5/5

The Duke of Villiers needs to find a wife and mother for five of his six illegitimate children. Most women are either already married or want nothing to do with the whole thing, particularly as the Duke is not the average person. There are but two women left on the list: Eleanor, who he is incredibly attracted to but doesn’t strike Villiers as the motherly sort, and Lisette, who is considered mad but loves children. He’ll have to spend time with them both… but if it’s anything to do with Eleanor, she’ll have him herself.

A Duke Of Her Own is the sixth and final story of the Desperate Duchesses series and ends the set spectacularly.

This book is no longer than any of the others, but it uses its time better than the rest; the other books aren’t lacking in story, but the sheer amount of things covered and the number of characters involved make it a more ‘complete’ story and with much more going for it than simply the romance.

The character development in the book in general is good, with Villiers and Eleanor, and Lisette, though to a lesser extent simply because she’s in-between main and secondary on the character list, understandably well-drawn. (Admittedly, Villiers has had a good few books’ worth of development but until the introduction to this book – included in the previous – he had been mostly relegated to ‘chess player’ status only. That said, he was also more intelligent in the previous books.) The chemistry is thus very good, too, with James creating a very believable romance. Villiers does sometimes get a bit too caught up in wondering whether he should instead marry the woman who he thinks would make the better mother (Lisette) but it doesn’t become overbearing.

This – the fact it doesn’t become overbearing – is due in part to James’ deft plotting. As the novel continues, Lisette’s supposed ‘madness’ is slowly shown to the reader for what it truly is, which means that Villiers’ umming and ahhing becomes more a question of ‘when is he going to see what others can see?’ rather than simple angst. The other reason it’s not overbearing is because it just doesn’t happen too much – once he starts to like Eleanor chunks of the book go by without question.

(And when James explains Lisette openly, it’s the satisfying conclusion to that subplot that you were hoping for.)

The addition of Villiers’ children in the book is fantastic. This isn’t to say that the previous books, which rarely featured children, didn’t work – it’s that the children themselves have inherited Villiers’ better traits, at least in terms of bookish interest. They are most often devious and clever, matching and generally trumping Villiers’ personality in terms of reader interest, and they help speed up his realisations of what is best for him, bringing in extra comedy and a different, lovely, feel to the book. The children are cunning thieves, strong youngsters in the face of the horrid adversity they’ve lived with, and James dedicates time to their settling into what is a completely different world for them. (All were abandoned by both parents and Villiers had previously left any upkeep to a person who effectively pocketed the money.)

There are of course moments that aren’t quite in keeping with the history – mostly due to James’ desire to bring in a bit of present-day thinking into her stories – and also a few silly moments, but these are both fleeting.

A Duke Of Her Own begins well, ends on a triumph, and manages to seem as though it’s from a completely different series whilst still adhering to the general atmosphere and mood of its companions. It is a superb finale to the set, and a fabulous book in itself.

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