Sanditon provokes thought about time and mutability and compels prescriptions to counter these forces. Partly, of course, those meditations arise from the history of its composition. Jane Austen began writing on January 27, 1817, recorded the date of her stopping point on March 18, and died exactly four months later on July 18.
Her letters during the months of composition track the progress of her illness, her efforts to remain optimistic, her prescriptions for herself, and her gratitude to her nurse, her sister, Cassandra, “so assiduous & unwearied” (23–25 March 1817). A few days before she began Sanditon she wrote to her niece Caroline: “I feel myself getting stronger than I was half a year ago, & can so perfectly well walk to Alton, or back again, without the slightest fatigue that I hope to be able to do both when Summer comes” (23 January 1817). The following day, still determinedly optimistic, she wrote to Alethea Bigg:
We are all in good health [&] I have certainly gained strength through the Winter & am not far from being well; & I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did as to be able by care to keep off any serious return of illness. I am more & more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself. (24 January 1817)
Her self-diagnosis encouraged her, like Sanditon’s Parker siblings, to self-prescribe. In March she wrote to her niece Fanny:
I am got tolerably well again, quite equal to walking about & enjoying the Air; & by sitting down and resting a good while between my Walks, I get exercise enough.—I have a scheme however for accomplishing more, as the weather grows springlike. I mean to take to riding the Donkey. It will be more independant & less troublesome than the use of the Carriage. (13 March 1817)
Sanditon’s Diana Parker, with her enthusiastic prescriptions for all around her, hilariously and poignantly mirrors (in exaggerated form) Austen’s own concerns at this time.
But Jane Austen’s declining health soon prevented progress on the complex world, old and new, that she was building. Five days after she recorded the date at the end of the Sanditon manuscript, she wrote again to Fanny: “I certainly have not been well for many weeks, & about a week ago I was very poorly . . . but am considerably better now. . . . I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life” (23–25 March 1817). That sense of “Indulgence” is something she continues to struggle against. Later that evening she writes, “I was languid & dull & very bad company when I wrote the above; I am better now—to my own feelings at least—& wish I may be more agreeable.”
Our knowledge of the circumstances of Sanditon’s composition and premature ending certainly, as I suggested above, colors our reading of and thinking about it. Those thoughts of time and mutability seem contagious, spreading even to writing about the work. This new collection of essays on Sanditon—drawn from the “Sanditon: 200 Years” conference at Trinity College, Cambridge, coordinated by Anne Toner—brings to mind a previous collection that appeared a little more than twenty years ago, in Persuasions 19. That year, 1997, JASNA’s AGM in San Francisco brought together a wide range of perspectives designed to answer the question of whether the unfinished Sanditon represented a new direction for Jane Austen. Persuasions published nineteen of those conference papers, which covered such generic concerns as satire and the pastoral, such political and social contexts as multiculturalism, empire, and the national debt, cultural institutions such as the circulating library and seaside resorts, issues of illness and hypochondria, and considerations of Anna Lefroy’s continuation of the work.
That issue, the final one edited by the team of founding editor Joan Austen-Leigh, Lorraine Hanaway, and Gene Koppel, before its redesign and expansion by Laurie Kaplan, stands in part as a monument to a previous era. (Persuasions On-Line did not yet exist; its first issue was still two years off.) In Persuasions 19 the message from JASNA’s president, musing on the redefinition of the literary canon, takes a stand against the abandonment of the literary classics in service to issues of race, gender, and class. Twenty years on, these worries are perhaps less insistent. The essays in this issue testify to the richness of the ongoing conversation, in Persuasions and elsewhere, about Jane Austen and her last work. The twenty-two essays included here describe exhibits that link Austen to the archival resources of the University of Cambridge, examine the Sanditon manuscript, explore Sanditon’s connections to its political and cultural context, consider Austen’s changes to the conventional novel, her characterization, and her play with style and genre, assess the continuations of the fragment, and propose strategies for teaching it. The conversation about Austen has widened and deepened.
Persuasions On-Line is very happy to be able to make these new perspectives on Sanditon available. In particular, Anne Toner, my co-editor, and I would like to thank the contributors, whose exciting work is reflected here, the editorial board of Persuasions, who gave thoughtful advice to the writers and editors, and especially Marsha Huff, proofreader extraordinaire, and Carol Moss, who built this issue from the ground up. With such material, and such investors, Persuasions On-Line 38.2 promises to become a profitable Speculation, even Something of a young Renown.