Sunday, May 26, 2013

Read and Watch: Sanditon

Title: Sanditon
Author: Jane Austen
Publication Year: 1925, but written in 1817
Read: May 2013 Genre: Classic, as in old (not classic, as in everyone should have read it in high school)

I was a major Pride and Prejudice fan throughout high school. I started with the 1995 miniseries, went to the book, and then lived on the DWG fanfic site. The elderly Harvard alumni were very confused about what fanficiton was when I was interviewing with them, and at the time I was foolish enough to explain to them that I wasn’t spending every minute of my free time analyzing Jane Austen’s prose. (Later, at home, I was able to put together a list of reasons why my real interest was as noble as the one they hoped I had. Check it out at the end of this post, especially if you foresee the need to justify a fanfiction hobby.)

Even though my enthusiasm for Pride and Prejudice has reasonably abated since high school, I was still eagerly checking the Lizzie Bennet Diaries twice a week this past year, and I’m following the team’s new Welcome to Sanditon.


Sanditon is the novel Jane Austen started to write a few months before she died, and what we can read of it today is only the first 12 chapters. In the world of Austen academia, there seems to be an impressive amount of debate over this little fragment of a novel. Questions the scholars have been asking include:

  • Who is the heroine? Who is the hero?
  • Does the plot contained within the fragment suggest Austen’s intended length for it?
  • Is there any indication of what was likely to happen in the plot?
  • What was Austen’s emotional state while writing the book?
  • Was the book an original story, or was it a reworking of Austen’s previous writings or ideas?
  • What is Austen’s attitude towards the speculative seaside resort culture?

I personally love scholarly debate like this. Making educated guesses about fragmented literary works is delicious, so I will butt in with my less-than-PhD-worthy opinions about some of them.

The heroine of the book was meant to be Charlotte Heywood. Unlike the editor (Margaret Drabble) of the Penguin Classics edition I was reading, I like Charlotte as a main character. Of the twelve characters I can think of off the top of my head, fully seven of them talk nonsense, but Charlotte is the most clear-headed heroine I’ve seen in all of Austen. Charlotte listens politely to people as they babble, yet she’s fully aware that they’re ridiculous. Here is Charlotte after a young man drones on and on about Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, using words like “hyper-criticism” and “pseudo-philosophy.” Another Austen heroine might be cowed by this talk, (cough Catherine Morland and Anne Eliot), but here’s Charlotte’s response:

She began to think him downright silly. – His choosing to walk with her, she had learnt to understand. It was done to pique Miss Brereton. She had read it, in an anxious glance or two on his side – but why he should talk so much nonsense, unless he could do no better was un-intelligible. – He seemed very sentimental, very full of some feelings or other, and very much addicted to all the newest-fashioned hard words – had not a very clear brain she presumed, and talked a good deal by rote. – The future might explain him further – but when there was a proposition for going into the library she felt that she had had quite enough of Sir Edward for one morning, and very gladly accepted Lady Denham’s invitation of remaining on the Terrace with her.

So clear-headed is Charlotte that Austen doesn’t expend any effort on an omniscient and biting narration to describe most of her characters. Charlotte does all the work the narration usually does. Everyone wants to be Elizabeth Bennet for her wit and ability to tease, but there is certainly a lot to admire in a heroine who sees the ridiculous and finds an extremely polite way of handling the circumstances.

The hero of the book is slightly more difficult to place because the best guess is that it’s the character who literally has arrived one page before Austen stopped working on the manuscript. Based on the three paragraphs about Mr. Sidney Parker, it seems like he would be a perfect match for Charlotte. He is the only sensible person out of five adult siblings, which says enough of his charms for me. (He’s also so handsome that his siblings are convinced his very presence will attract young ladies to Sanditon like moths to flames.)

As for how long the book was going to be, all I can say is that based on this chart I assembled, there is no way to tell. In fact, the only reason I am showing you the chart is that I love to see the word-count pairs, and figure someone else might like to see them too.

I’ve started to sketch a plot summary of the book fragment for everyone who’s curious about it, but not curious enough to actually read it. This one covers almost half of the chapters, while omitting almost everything about Sanditon. (I like characters more than setting.) As I post the remainder of the existing story, I'll speculate on the direction of the plot (as long as you bear in mind that there is no evidence that my theory is more or less accurate than another). Sanditon Pt. 1

Welcome to Sanditon

Armed with my plot summary sketch, you have enough information to join me in wondering where the Welcome to Sanditon writers are going with their adaptation (which has four episodes currently, and is a summer venture for the creative team). Apparently, they are in the Margaret Drabble camp that hates on Charlotte Heywood, because the main character of Sanditon is not even a character in Welcome to Sanditon.

It seems that Georgiana Darcy is taking Charlotte Heywood’s place as an observer on the zany characters of the town, but that is a bit of an awkward substitution. Gigi Darcy is an impulsive character in the Lizzie Bennet Diaries universe, whereas Charlotte Heywood is a sedate but smart one. My best guess for this change is that the actress who played Charlotte Lu in the LBD was unavailable for WtS, because how much more natural would it have been for the writers to substitute one calm and clever Charlotte with another?

The Georgiana Darcy factor should also change Mrs. Denham’s plans for Edward Denham. In the book Lady Denham, while considering leaving thousands of pounds to Sir Edward, is hopeful that Sir Edward can find a rich heiress to marry, and thus make his own fortune (in the uniquely gentrified way of making a fortune). Thus, she initially is worried that Sir Edward may throw away his chances by marrying Charlotte, who, as one of fourteen children, is not wealthy enough to do him any good. But Gigi Darcy in WtS is a promising prospect for any aunt with ambitions for her nephew. Rather than seek to throw him into the path of the Caribbean heiress, this Mrs. Denham should be hoping that Gigi really will pull strings to get Edward a job at Pemberley Digital (already suggested in Episode 3).

The logical theory I can propose about this series is that most of the creative team is uninterested in being faithful to the limited text available. They found an Austen they could use without alienating a large fandom, and they’re using a few names and the general premise of a growing health community as a way of encouraging fan-participation in vlogging.

And the interactive vlogging and tweeting thing is a cool premise, so I can’t be particularly upset. But part of me still regrets that with almost any direction possible from the text (I’ll mull about Clara Brereton another time), this adaptation seems to be throwing away most of the interesting foundation.

Episodes of Welcome to Sanditon are uploaded to Youtube on Mondays and Thursdays.

Legitimate Benefits of a Fanfiction Obsession

  1. Participating in a fanfiction forum is a way of analyzing experiments with writing. After reading enough, you can gauge which parts of Austen make Austen unique. Is it the vocabulary? Nope. Some fanfics have archaic words that clunk. Characters? Possibly. But since 90% of the writers are using Darcy and Elizabeth in some form, that’s not what really makes it. Ironic observations? Yes. I never read a fanfic that matched Austen in this aspect.
  2. By reading works-in-progress, you have the opportunity to critique authors and see if the changes you suggest get made or make a difference.
  3. By spending so much time seeing variations, you learn the difference between the Canonical source material and the fan memes that make their way through stories. (Case in point is Colonel Fitzwilliam’s first name.)
  4. There’s actually a fair amount of literary criticism implicit in fanfiction. Rather than exploring the onset of Darcy’s love through an analytic essay, authors will make variations to the original plot or its timeline, and show how slight changes could have affected the story. Thus you can begin to determine if the Netherfield Ball is the necessary catalyst for Darcy’s feelings, or if he was on the path to proposing as far back as the Assembly when he rejects asking Elizabeth to dance.

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