Sanditon ends with the exclamation “Poor Mr Hollis!—It was impossible not to feel him hardly used; to be obliged to stand back in his own House & see the best place by the fire occupied by Sir H. D.” (Minor Works 427). I would like to add, “poor Charlotte Heywood!” since she is so often unfavorably compared to other Austen heroines. Certainly, Charlotte Heywood differs from the others. She appears “self-contained, rational, and happy” (Justice 160). The novel shows little of her interior life. George Justice has even suggested that she is not actually the heroine of Sanditon (160). It is, however, be premature to consider Charlotte an undeveloped, flat character who may not be a “heroine” because, like other Austen novels that focus on heroines’ perceptions, Sanditon is concerned with the way Charlotte perceives her world. We see this concern in the narrative style of Sanditon as well as the fragment’s emphasis on the risks of perception and speculation. Despite her reputation for objectivity, Charlotte’s perception can be inaccurate, colored by imagination; consequently, she is perhaps misrepresented when described by Roger Gard as “an objective, uncharacterised pair of eyes” (qtd. in McMaster 151), a “reporter of the events she experiences” (Huey 256), and “the wisest and most clear-sighted of all of Austen’s heroines” (Selwyn 63) who “prevents reader identification” (Justice 160). Charlotte’s complexity and depth of character is revealed through the themes as well as the narrative style used in Sanditon.
Charlotte’s initial misperception of Sir Edward underscores a tension between her self-perception and the way she actually thinks and sees, calling into question critical perspectives on her character as undeveloped. When she first meets Sir Edward, Charlotte initially regards him as
much [Miss Denham’s] superior in air & manner;—certainly handsome, but yet more to be remarked for his very good address & wish of paying attention & giving pleasure.—He came into the room remarkably well, talked much—& very much to Charlotte, by whom he chanced to be placed—& she soon perceived that he had a fine Countenance, a most pleasing gentleness of voice, & a great deal of Conversation. She liked him.—Sober-minded as she was, she thought him agreeable. . . . (394–95)
The fact that “she soon perceived” his attractive qualities implies that her judgment of Sir Edward changes after she makes his acquaintance; his attentiveness and her perception of his interest improve her opinion of him. The narrator—or Charlotte herself, since we cannot be sure who is narrating at this point—informs the reader that Charlotte is “sober-minded,” a compound adjective that is a repeated descriptor for Charlotte and possibly a label she has chosen for herself rather than an omniscient narrator’s description.1
The narration here appears to shift to free indirect discourse, becoming choppier and more colloquial as we are told that Sir Edward “came into the room remarkably well” and “talked much—& very much to Charlotte” (394). This transition to free indirect discourse signals that Charlotte’s perception, rather than the narrator’s, is related here. Even though Sir Edward may have sat beside her by chance, without meaning anything by it, Charlotte is flattered by what she believes is his interest. At the same time that she is described as “sober-minded,” Charlotte’s reaction to Sir Edward is not cool or objective: “she thought him agreeable” (395). Charlotte’s belief in her coolness contrasts to her obvious interest in Sir Edward. Whether she is aware of it or not, her perceptions are not coldly rational. Her short-lived romantic speculation exposes observations that are vulnerable to desire, and while she is intelligent and clear-sighted, she is also susceptible to seeing what she wants to see.
Of course, Charlotte’s perception of Sir Edward changes when she realizes that her idea of his interest has been inaccurate. She observes that “there was instantly a slight change in Sir Edw:’s countenance— . . . which altogether gave an hasty turn to Charlotte’s fancy, cured her of her halfhour’s fever, & placed her in a more capable state of judging, when Sir Edw: was gone, of how agreable he had actually been” (395). Charlotte’s ability to change the way she perceives Sir Edward places her in contrast with many of the other characters, such as Mr. Parker, who don’t see when they are misled and who consequently rarely change their views. Juliet McMaster notes that Charlotte is “an excellent observer and moral guide, . . . [whose] capability in judgement, backed by her capability in observing, makes her immune to [Sir Edward’s] blandishments” (154). While Charlotte certainly becomes “immune” to Sir Edward after observation and reflection, however, she is not immune at first: she experiences a “halfhour’s fever” caused by her speculation as to Sir Edward’s attentions; her initial observations are not accurate, and those perceptions are shaped by her desires. This scene is the first suggestion that Charlotte is fallible and not merely an “objective” observer.
Her initial perception of Clara Brereton as a fictional heroine also subverts Charlotte’s reputation as a cool, trustworthy observer and highlights her tendency to project fantasies onto others. Upon seeing Clara Brereton,
Charlotte could see in her only the most perfect representation of whatever Heroine might be the most beautiful & bewitching, in all the numerous vol:s they had left behind them on Mrs Whitby’s shelves.—Perhaps it might be partly oweing to her having just issued from a Circulating Library—but she cd not separate the idea of a complete Heroine from Clara Brereton. Her situation with Lady Denham so very much in favour of it!—She seemed placed with her on purpose to be ill-used. Such Poverty & Dependance joined to such Beauty & Merit, seemed to leave no choice in the business. (391)
Drawing on her experience with novels, Charlottes fantasizes that Clara is very similar to a fictional heroine and begins to imagine Clara’s story, which includes ill-use, “Poverty & Dependance joined to such Beauty & Merit” (391).
Charlotte’s tendency to fantasize and draw from fictional types highlights her character’s psychological realism. As Janet Todd notes, Austen’s “heroines are influenced by books which may unconsciously infiltrate their ways of thinking” (29). Like Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, Charlotte Heywood uses her experience with novels to fill the gaps in her limited knowledge of the world beyond her home circle. Catherine Morland decides that General Tilney was most likely “dreadfully cruel” to his wife: “She had often read of such characters; characters, which Mr. Allen had been used to call unnatural and overdrawn; but here was proof positive of the contrary” (181). While Catherine imagines General Tilney’s similarities to fictional villians, Charlotte regards Clara as a fictional heroine. Of course, Charlotte is certainly not as naïve as Catherine, and unlike Catherine, Charlotte disengages from her fantasy when she sees that it does not align with reality. She awakens from her “halfhour’s fever,” for example, after seeing that Sir Edward is attracted to Clara and that, above all, he “had not a very clear Brain” (398). Whether she completely disengages from her fantasy is still a question. Like Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet, Charlotte is a bright character who usually perceives with accuracy and great penetration but can also misperceive, misinterpret, or project her own desires.
Charlotte’s complexity is particularly conveyed through her reactions to Lady Denham, who helps reveal the occasional fallibility of Charlotte’s judgment. At the end of chapter 7, Charlotte reflects that Lady Denham is
“very, very mean.—I can see no Good in her.—Poor Miss Brereton!—And she makes every body mean about her.—This poor Sir Edward & his Sister,—how far Nature meant them to be respectable I cannot tell,—but they are obliged to be Mean in their Servility to her.—And I am Mean too, in giving her my attention, with the appearance of coinciding with her.—Thus it is, when Rich People are Sordid.” (402)
In Jane Austen and Leisure, David Selwyn describes Charlotte as the “wisest” heroine, who “sees not only how mean Lady Denham is but the extent to which her meanness contaminates everyone with whom she comes into contact” (63). However, if Lady Denham is not as “mean” as Charlotte imagines—and there is evidence suggesting Lady Denham is not—chapter 7 may go further to raise questions about the objectivity of Charlotte’s judgment. For example, Lady Denham has virtually adopted Clara Brereton, and without Lady Denham’s support, Clara would face a life of deprivation. Mr. Parker reports that in choosing her companion
Lady D. had shewn the good part of her Character—for passing by the actual daughters of the House, she had chosen Clara, a Neice—, more helpless & more pitiable of course than any— . . . one, who had been so low in every worldly view, as with all her natural endowments & powers, to have been preparing for a situation little better than a Nursery Maid. (379)
Regardless of her initial reasons for bringing Clara to Denham Park, Lady Denham has helped her niece and has given her the opportunity for a more comfortable life. While Charlotte is aware of Lady Denham’s support of Clara, she decides to overlook any good that may have come from it. Charlotte’s inaccurate judgment of Lady Denham shows that her opinions are sometimes shaped by her irritation, implying again that she is not entirely “sober-minded.” Further, although Charlotte imagines that Lady Denham makes “every body” mean about her, Clara does not appear to be mean even though she is often in Lady Denham’s company. Rather, Charlotte herself has reflected on the fact that Clara appears to feel gratitude and affectionate respect for Lady Denham (392). Charlotte’s hasty generalizations in this scene imply that she is a feeling, flawed character and not simply “a reporter of events” (Huey 256).
Charlotte’s attempt to see through the mist at the end of the fragment shows a character straining to see with accuracy and, when she is unable to do so, choosing to speculate. Again, her voice and the narrator’s voice shade into each other, calling into question the ability of character—and reader—to see what is actually happening. In the last chapter of Sanditon, when Charlotte, Mrs. Parker, and little Mary walk toward Sanditon House, seeing with accuracy is difficult:
It was a close, misty morng, & when they reached the brow of the Hill, they could not for some time make out what sort of Carriage it was, which they saw coming up. It appeared at different moments to be everything from the Gig to the Pheaton,—from one horse to 4; & just as they were concluding in favour of a Tandem, little Mary’s young eyes distinguished the Coachman & she eagerly called out, “T’is Uncle Sidney Mama, it is indeed.” And so it proved. (425)
Although Charlotte’s and Mrs. Parker’s eyes cannot penetrate the mist, they both “conclud[e] in favour of a Tandem” without seeing a tandem. Here Charlotte and Mary speculate because they cannot perceive with accuracy. The mist emphasizes the uncertainty of the world they try to see and leads to guessing, requiring characters to draw on their imaginations to fill the gap in perception.
Soon after, in a scene that underscores what McMaster terms “the difficulty of the act of seeing” (157), Charlotte witnesses what appears to be a secret tryst between Clara and Sir Edward:
Charlotte as soon as they entered the Enclosure, caught a glimpse over the pales of something White & Womanish in the field on the other side;—it was something which immediately brought Miss B. into her head—& stepping to the pales, she saw indeed—& very decidedly, in spite of the Mist; Miss B— seated, not far before her, at the foot of the bank which sloped down from the outside of the Paling & which a narrow Path seemed to skirt along; —Miss Brereton seated, apparently very composedly—& Sir E. D. by her side.—They were sitting so near each other & appeared so closely engaged in gentle conversation, that Ch. instantly felt she had nothing to do but to step back again, & say not a word. —Privacy was certainly their object. (426)
“[S]omething White & Womanish” brings Clara into Charlotte’s head, and then “in spite of the mist,” which we already know she cannot penetrate, Charlotte perceives Clara Brereton—the very person she has just imagined. Another instance of the tension between imagination and perception, in this scene Charlotte sees a woman wearing white, sitting with Sir Edward, and then decides that the woman is Clara because Clara comes into her mind. If she has not been able to discern Sidney’s approach, how can we trust her perception now? Charlotte, we have seen, cannot see through the mist and will imagine what she is not able to see, just as she imagined a tandem, a gig, and a phaeton. Perhaps, then, it is not Clara with Sir Edward. Perhaps a different woman is with him, or perhaps the figure in the mist is not Sir Edward. Although Mary Jane Curry argues that “Charlotte can penetrate the mists to comprehend a scene” (174), Charlotte’s perception of the two figures cannot be trusted since doubt has just been cast on her ability to see. We cannot know because Charlotte’s sight cannot be trusted.
Since the fragment ends soon after, Charlotte speculates on what she sees with unknowable consequences. Charlotte’s speculation as to what she may not be able to see cannot be clear-sighted. McMaster explores the psychological possibilities of this scene, noting, “The thick atmosphere is augmented by a backwash of [Charlotte’s] feelings—her sense of guilt at overlooking a secret assignation, her mystification that her ‘heroine’ should be so compromised” (158). But the mist may be more than a “backwash of her feelings,” passively reflecting Charlotte’s emotions; the mist could encourage and reveal Charlotte’s psychological projection. Now, more than “guilt” or “feelings,” she sees people about whom she has once fantasized. These figures appear to rise from her imagination as they rise from the mist: likewise, in the same passage, Clara’s name appears first abbreviated as “Miss B.”; then, as Charlotte becomes more certain that the figure she sees must be Clara, the name is spelled out in full as “Miss Brereton,” reflecting the clearer, more complete vision that Charlotte imagines she sees.
In Austen’s earlier novels perception is also represented as speculation. Just as Charlotte’s vision is questioned in Sanditon, in Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne and Elinor Dashwood spy a rider in the distance, Marianne’s perception is similarly uncertain. Marianne is certain the approaching rider is Willoughby:
In a few minutes they could distinguish him to be a gentleman; and in a moment afterwards Marianne rapturously exclaimed,
“It is he; it is indeed;—I know it is!” And was hastening to meet him, when Elinor cried out,
“Indeed, Marianne, I think you are mistaken. It is not Willoughby. The person is not tall enough for him, and has not his air.
“He has, he has,” cried Marianne, “ I am sure he has. His air, his coat, his horse. I knew how soon he would come.” (86)
Marianne perceives the man she wants to see and does not believe Elinor, who recognizes that the figure cannot be Willoughby (and is in fact Edward). This scene also suggests that Marianne does not accurately know Willoughby and that even her perception of his “air, his coat, his horse” may be affected by her imagination, which plays a significant role in her comprehension of Willoughby’s character. Like Marianne, whose ideas of romance and attachment come a great deal from novels and from her imagination, Charlotte in Sanditon may draw from imagination and novels when she sees the two figures in the mist.
Austen uses misperception of indistinct figures to reveal the challenges of distinguishing between imagination and reality, desire and truth. McMaster points out that misperceiving the hero is a recurring theme in Austen’s fiction, noting examples including Marianne’s misperception of the approaching Edward, Elinor’s belief that Colonel Brandon is approaching at the end of Sense and Sensibility, and Mr. Darcy’s approach at the end of Pride and Prejudice (149). Similarly, misperception occurs in Emma and Northanger Abbey. In Austen’s novels, characters project their imaginings onto others until, sometimes, as Janet Todd describes it, “they are made to discover the instability of their most cherished beliefs and memories: when Elizabeth Bennet starts to doubt her good opinion, even love, of Wickham, she finds that the remembrance of his mental and physical charm dissolves” (29). Since Austen regularly employs this method in her novels, Charlotte Heywood’s perception of Clara in the mist might be another instance of the risks of seeing that would later have proven to be a failed speculation. Perhaps Charlotte Heywood may come to a realization about the subjectivity of her perceptions and the way sight is influenced by imagination. She may learn that in seeking to speculate, or see with comprehension, she fails to perceive objective reality. If Austen had been able to complete Sanditon, Charlotte may have eventually realized the inevitability of misjudgment.
As some critics have pointed out, Charlotte’s perceptions and consciousness appear less developed than is typical for heroines in Austen’s novels, but her detachment could be explained by narrative style. Todd describes most heroines’ consciousness as “presented as interactive with [the heroine’s] physical being, cultural influences, and external forces. Austen presents this consciousness in such a way that we believe we penetrate through the exterior into the inner life, gaining a sense of this life pressing against an outside world and changing with circumstances” (29). There seems, however, to be little of Charlotte’s inner life in Sanditon. As George Justice notes, “The narration in Sanditon plunges us less into the consciousness of its main character than any of Austen’s other post Northanger Abbey novels” (160).
Charlotte’s consciousness, however, may be presented as free indirect discourse that is difficult to differentiate from the omniscient narration. The narration may transition between omniscient narration and free indirect discourse, raising questions about where Charlotte’s perception begins and where omniscient narration ends. “Secret sharing,” James Wood’s description of free indirect discourse, in which we “inhabit omniscience and partiality at once”—an “unreliability identical to the unreliable first person narrator” (10–11)—appears throughout Sanditon as subtle narrative shifts. These shifts between the narrator’s and heroine’s consciousness are not marked and, if overlooked, can contribute to a sense of detachment from the heroine’s interior experience; rather than having no interiority and little consciousness, Charlotte’s consciousness and the narration may shade into one another, like images in the mist. For example, it is unclear whether the narrator or Charlotte, through free indirect discourse, tells us that “she saw indeed—& very decidedly, in spite of the Mist; Miss B— seated, not far before her” (426). Who is telling us that “she saw . . . very decidedly”? Who is “decided,” and can this certainty be trusted? If we are close to Charlotte, seeing what she sees, then there is room to question whether or not she can accurately perceive. Our narrator appears to see the characters accurately, but if Charlotte’s perceptions can be inaccurate and shade into the narration, the reader may need to speculate about who is describing the scene and whether or not there is a potential to be misled.
The narrator’s assurance of Charlotte’s sober-mindedness is a likely instance of “secret sharing.” Looking back to an earlier moment when Charlotte first considers that Clara Brereton is like a heroine from a novel, we read that
These feelings were not the result of any spirit of Romance in Charlotte herself. No, she was a very sober-minded young Lady, sufficiently well-read in Novels to supply her Imagination with amusement, but not at all unreasonably influenced by them; & while she pleased herself the first 5 minutes with fancying the Persecutions which ought to be the Lot of the interesting Clara, especially in the form of the most barbarous conduct on Lady Denham’s side, she found no reluctance to admit from subsequent observation, that they appeared to be on very good comfortable Terms. (391–92)
The rather colloquial phrasing of “No, she was a very sober-minded young Lady” implies once again that Charlotte here uses her own language, her own labels for herself, describing herself as not “unreasonably influenced” by novels and as having no “spirit of Romance” (391).2 Her imperfect understanding of her own character is an experience shared—and eventually transcended—by heroines in Austen’s previous novels.
In Austen’s novels, characters’ perceptions are often influenced by what they believe. Sanditon seems to go further, offering a study of the relationship between speculation and perception, including Charlotte and the reader in the mystery and uncertainty. In Sanditon, Austen may be experimenting with a different approach to free indirect discourse that reflects the speculative nature of seeing. Charlotte’s perceptions seem to move in and out of the narration, implying that Charlotte does not know how to distinguish her own perceptions from the reality of the world around her and thus may misinterpret events. This technique could point to a depth of character and a complexity that calls into question her reputation as an objective lens through which the world of Sanditon can be viewed. Perhaps all the uncertainty Charlotte faces would have eventually taught her about the risks of seeing, and she may have learned to become a better speculator after her time in Sanditon. In chapter 11, after realizing her mistake about the number of visitors she thinks she has brought to Sanditon, Diana Parker feels that she is “less clear-sighted & infallible than she had beleived herself” (420). Perhaps Sanditon is leading a perceptive but fallible Charlotte to the same conclusion.