Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Persuasions On-Line ›   |   Volume 38 No. 2 ›   |   Jane Austen in Cambridge: An Introduction to Sanditon at 200 Years

Jane Austen in Cambridge: An Introduction to Sanditon at 200 Years

The bicentenary year of Jane Austen’s death, 2017, was also the bicentenary of the composition of her last, unfinished work, Sanditon, referred to by Austen as The Brothers.  Austen dated the opening of the manuscript “Jany: 27.—1817” and also, so poignantly, recorded the date at which she seemed to have stopped writing.  “March 18” is inscribed at its end, with forty pages of this third manuscript booklet in which she was writing her narrative still to be filled.  Austen died exactly four months later on July 18, 1817. 

Sanditon b3 40

Sanditon manuscript. Booklet 3, p. 40, with the closing date March 18. 
By permission of the Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge.
(Click here to see a larger version.)

In March 2017, almost precisely two hundred years on from the date inscribed on this last written page, a three-day conference devoted to Sanditon took place in Cambridge, UK.  There is no evidence that Austen ever visited Cambridge, but the contingencies of time and inheritance delivered her last work there, to find its resting place amidst the dramatic architecture of King’s College, a college that by the late nineteenth century had developed significant connections with a branch of Austen’s family. 

The essays that make up this special issue all come from the Cambridge conference, and they comprise an exciting body of scholarship coming out of Sanditon’s bicentary year.  The special issue is in itself unusual, being devoted to a mere twelve chapters of fiction, these last chapters that Austen wrote.  This special issue also reconstructs exhibitions that were held in Cambridge to coincide with the conference.  First, King’s College archivist, Patricia McGuire, and librarian, James Clements, in their essay “Jane Austen at King’s College, Cambridge,” document and illustrate more than sixty items from the exceptionally rich Austen collection that has developed at King’s College, including archival material relating to the Austen family.  Second, Jane Austen letters held in different Cambridge collections were brought together for the first time, in an exhibition at the University Library.  These letters were displayed alongside other rare autograph and printed Austen items held in the University Library and are displayed here again.  Finally, for the first time, at the 2017 conference, Anna Lefroy’s continuation of Sanditon was exhibited with her aunt Jane’s Sanditon, reuniting these items for the first time since they were both in the possession of the Lefroy family.  I describe this reunion further below, as does Peter Sabor, later in this issue, in his essay “‘The Same Difference as between Real Lace, & Imitation’: Anna Lefroy’s Continuation of Sanditon Revisited.” 

Jane Austen: Cambridge connections 

If Jane Austen is to be associated with any university town, it is undoubtedly Oxford, where her father and her two brothers James and Henry were students at St. John’s College.  Austen’s mother had distinguished connections with Oxford University:  Cassandra Leigh’s uncle, Theophilus Leigh, was Master of Balliol; her father had been a fellow at All Souls; and her mother, through the Perrot family, was descended from the founder of St. John’s College, allowing her sons, James and Henry Austen to enter the college as “Founders Kin” (Le Faye 8–9).  Austen may have made her print debut at the age of fourteen in her brother James’s Oxford periodical, The Loiterer

It is perhaps little surprise, then, that Oxford educated three of Austen’s male protagonists:  Edward Ferrars, Edmund Bertram, and Henry Tilney, all three clergymen, like her father, James, and ultimately Henry.  By contrast, there are only two characters in Austen’s fiction who went to university at Cambridge.  Unfortunately for Cambridge, clever and charismatic as they may be, these two are Wickham and Henry Crawford.1  Andrew Davies’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with some textual foundation, promulgates the idea that Darcy’s father sent not only Wickham, but his own son to Cambridge.  The scene (not filmed in Cambridge, but in Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire) in which Darcy, in full academical dress, discovers a compromised Wickham when visiting him in his college room, is based on Darcy’s letter in the novel: 

“My father supported him at school, and afterwards at Cambridge. . . . As for myself, it is many, many years since I first began to think of [Wickham] in a very different manner.  The vicious propensities—the want of principle which he was careful to guard from the knowledge of his best friend, could not escape the observation of a young man of nearly the same age with himself, and who had opportunities of seeing him in unguarded moments, which Mr. Darcy [senior] could not have.”  (222)  

It is conceivable that the owner of Pemberley would have been educated at Cambridge as a fellow commoner.  Fellow commoners were wealthy students who were able to partake of some of the privileges of a fellow, and increasingly over the course of the eighteenth century they were noblemen.2  The wealthy Mr. Darcy, grandson of an earl, would not have been out of place.  But university is of course not the only context in which young men associate, and there is no avoiding the matter that Austen leaves Darcy’s putative educational background enigmatic, while damning Cambridge with Wickham. 

Of course, Austen knew men who had been educated in Cambridge.  In particular there was the potential romance between Jane Austen and the Emmanuel College fellow Samuel Blackall, first publically recorded by William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh in their 1913 Life and Letters. A Family Record (84–86).  Austen’s friend Anne Lefroy had introduced Blackall to Jane.  In a letter from Blackall to Mrs. Lefroy, which she showed to Austen, who then described it to Cassandra, he expressed regard for her and a wish of “a nearer interest” to the Austen family but one that would not be imminent (17–18 November 1798).  The impediment was, it seems, his having to wait for a living as a clergyman, which would allow him to marry.  Austen’s views on Blackall have been interpreted differently, from attachment to her own proclaimed “indifference” (17–18 November 1798), or to a stronger dislike of him as a suitor.3  Fifteen years after this initial meeting, Austen commented in a letter to her brother on Blackall’s marriage to Susannah Lewis—Blackall had at last, succeeded to an Emmanuel College living, an event which Austen had also noticed—with a mixture of seeming affection and characteristically shrewd observation:  “I should very much like to know what sort of a Woman she is.  He was a peice of Perfection, noisy Perfection himself which I always recollect with regard” (3–6 July 1813). 

William Austen-Leigh and his nephew Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh had significant Cambridge connections—William was a fellow of King’s—and were therefore in a good position in preparing their biography of Austen to consult Emmanuel College’s records for information about Blackall (86–87 n.2).4  Emmanuel holds some slim but quietly revealing material about Samuel Blackall, who was a fellow from 1794 until his marriage in 1813.  In particular, the college wager book shows how Blackall participated in the desultory life of a fellow, required, as fellows were, to be resident in their college.  Blackall was often one of the fellows most likely to be pepping up long evenings in the combination room with some bets, evidently quite as noisily as Austen would remember.  The wagers in the college parlour could be serious and sometimes exceptionally silly (Bendall et al., 311–12), and the personal lives of the fellows were up for discussion.  It was relatively common for the assembled gentlemen to talk about who might get married when.  Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra about Blackall’s letter to Mrs. Lefroy in mid-November.  Not long after this time, the wager book shows that the assembled fellows of Emmanuel were discussing how likely Blackall was to get married:  on 8 December 1798, fellow commoner James Holbrook bet Blackall that “Holbrook married before Blackall” (ECA 9.4; 155), and one may wonder whether Blackall’s Hampshire connections were some part of the background to this common-room banter.  Another leisure activity for fellows was bowls.  As the Austen-Leighs recorded, Samuel Blackall’s engraved woods remained at Emmanuel (87 n.2), and they still do.

Bowls page 23

By permission © Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

In the end, Samuel Blackall got the college living that Jane Austen recalls was “the very Living which we remembered his talking of & wishing for; an exceeding good one, Great Cadbury in Somersetshire” (3–6 July 1813).  On March 20, 1813—two months after his marriage—Emmanuel College’s Order Book records a loan of £1200 to the Reverend Samuel Blackall to rebuild the Rectory House for his marriage and new life (156). 

While this connection between Austen and a Cambridge college is at a remove, more counterfactual than substantial, the family of James Edward Austen-Leigh, Austen’s nephew, established significant links with Cambridge University.  The first public acknowledgement of the existence of Sanditon was in the 1871 second edition of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, and, because of his son Augustus, Sanditon eventually left the family’s possession, to be held in King’s College.  Three of James Edward’s sons studied at King’s and were fellows there.  Augustus Austen-Leigh, James Edward’s sixth son, became Provost of King’s from 1889, where he is remembered as skilfully overseeing a period of reform.  He became Vice-Chancellor of the University in 1893.  In 1889 just after being appointed Provost, Augustus married Florence Emma Lefroy, Austen’s great-great niece.  Florence’s grandmother was Anna Lefroy, the half-sister of James Edward Austen-Leigh.  Anna inherited the manuscript of Sanditon, which then passed through the Lefroy family to Florence’s sister Mary Isabella (Isabel) Lefroy, who in 1930 donated it to King’s.  When doing so, she wrote in a letter to R. W. Chapman from the Provost’s Lodge that her action was in memory “of the most popular Provost, and Provostess ‘Kings’ has ever had.”  Augustus died in the Provost’s Lodge in 1905, and Augustus and Florence Austen-Leigh, the “most popular Provost, and Provostess ‘Kings’ has ever had,” are buried in the nearby village of Grantchester. 

Patricia McGuire and James Clements describe more fully these connections between the Austen-Leighs and the Lefroys with King’s, along with the collection of Austen material that followed Mary Isabella’s bequest to the college. 

Sanditon in Cambridge 2017: continuations and innovations 

Of course, it was the Sanditon manuscript that made Cambridge University such a fitting location for this bicentenary event.  Trinity College, which hosted the conference, has a much more modest connection with the Austen family than King’s, but some connection, nonetheless.  Austen’s nephew, Charles Bridges Knight, the seventh child of Edward Knight, entered Trinity in 1821.  He passed a rather undistinguished academic career before returning to Hampshire, where eventually he served as Rector of Chawton for thirty years.5  In 1948, R. W. Chapman was the invited Clark lecturer at Trinity College, and he spoke on what would become his book Jane Austen: Facts and Problems

That the essays from the conference are being published in Persuasions On-Line is also fitting, matching the earlier substantial series of essays devoted to Sanditon that came out of the JASNA San Francisco conference and were published in Persuasions in 1997.  It was a great delight that a number of scholars from the 1997 conference were present in 2017. 

In the 1997 collection of essays, Elaine Bander referred then to “the much-discussed romantic ‘mistiness’ of Sanditon” (196).  There is a persistent mistiness that prevails in and around the fragment, literally in the “close, misty morning” of its last chapter (Later Manuscripts 206) but also metaphorically in the accompanying narrative impressionism that Austen may have been adopting in Sanditon, in the general uncertainty as to the status of the manuscript’s writing, and in what intentions Austen had for its characters and plot.  Of course, Sanditon continues to intrigue, perplex, and, in some respects, divide its readers, and this special issue makes evident how the fragment goes on generating innovative historical research and critical readings.  The essays in this issue are organized so as to begin with Austen’s composition processes and with Sanditon as a manuscript, a material emphasis that significantly supports contemporary readings of Austen and an emphasis that the close presence of the manuscript in Cambridge promoted.  The issue moves through historical, critical, stylistic, and pedagogic sections.   There are also essays on Sanditon’s afterlives in the forms of continuations and adaptations, worlds of fan fiction that were barely predicted, even in 1997. 

It is on the subject of Sanditon’s first continuation that this introduction to “Jane Austen in Cambridge” ends.  Sanditon came to Cambridge by means of the Lefroy family, and it entered that family on Cassandra’s death in 1845.  Anna’s aspirations as a novelist and her literary collaborations with her aunt meant that she was a suitable beneficiary of the manuscript, and, indeed, after Sanditon was passed to her, she attempted its continuation.  Peter Sabor in his essay in this volume establishes a new date for that continuation. 

One notable occurrence at the 2017 Cambridge conference was the brief re-uniting of Anna Lefroy’s unfinished manuscript with Jane Austen’s.  Thanks to the manuscript’s owner, Anna Lefroy’s work travelled via Sotheby’s to Cambridge for display alongside Sanditon at the exhibition that took place at King’s College.  Anna Lefroy described in an 1862 letter to James Edward Austen-Leigh that she spoke with Austen about Sanditon, in those last months of her life (Le Faye 243).  While it remains uncertain whether those conversations directly informed Anna’s later continuation of Sanditon, the two manuscripts lying next to each other suggested powerfully the once closeness of aunt and niece, their often intertwined literary interests, and the power and, inevitably, the sadness of the unfinished work. 


1Issawi provides a fuller list of university affiliations among Austen’s characters. 

2I am grateful to Boyd Hilton for his advice on the admission of fellow commoners to Cambridge University during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 

3Catherine Hubback’s assertion in a letter to James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1870:  “If ever she [their aunt Jane] was in love, it was with Dr. Blackall” (J. E. Austen-Leigh 191).  This account, as Kathryn Sutherland notes, “seems to have been confused in the minds of the next generation with Cassandra’s other story of the seaside romance cut short so tragically by death” (J. E. Austen-Leigh 266).  Andrew Norman is one writer who has endorsed Hubback’s view.  Hazel Jones describes Austen’s discouragement of Blackall (202), and Deirdre Le Faye outlines Austen’s gratitude at his remaining at a distance (106).  Frank Stubbings wonders at the tone of Austen’s letters about Blackall and whether satire may “mask her feeling” (80). 

4William Austen-Leigh was a fellow of King’s College between 1864 and 1921.  Richard Arthur had studied at King’s, matriculating in 1891, and became its historian, writing Bygone King’s: Being a Collection of Views of the Buildings at King’s College, Cambridge, with Descriptive Notes (1907).  I am grateful to Sarah Bendall and Amanda Goode at Emmanuel College for their help with access to some of these same records. 

5I am grateful to Jonathan Smith, archivist at Trinity College, and to Hazel Jones for information about Charles Bridges Knight.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts: A Digital Edition.  Ed. Kathryn Sutherland.  2010.  http://www.janeausten.ac.uk.
  • _____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  3rd ed.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.
  • _____.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Pat Rogers.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
  • Austen-Leigh, J. E.  A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections.  Ed. Kathryn Sutherland.  Oxford: OUP, 2002.
  • Austen-Leigh, William, and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh.  Jane Austen. Her Life and Letters.  A Family Record.  London: Smith, 1913.
  • Bander, Elaine.  “Sanditon, Northanger Abbey, and Camilla: Back to the Future?”  Persuasions 19 (1997): 195–204. 
  • Bendall, Sarah, Christopher Brooke, and Patrick Collinson.  A History of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  Woodbridge: Boydell, 2000. 
  • Chapman, R. W.  Jane Austen.  Facts and Problems.  The Clark Lectures. Trinity College, Cambridge.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1948.
  • Issawi, Charles.  “Jane Austen, Oxford and Cambridge: Pride and Prejudice.”  Persuasions 5 (1983): 8–9.
  • Jones, Hazel.  Jane Austen and Marriage.  London: Continuum, 2009. 
  • Le Faye, Deirdre.   Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, A Family Record.  2nd ed.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
  • Lefroy, Isabel.  Letter to R. W. Chapman.  28 October 1830.  King’s College Library, Cambridge University, UK.
  • Myers, Robin.  “Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh”.  Dictionary of National Biography.  2004.  Online.
  • Norman, Andrew.  Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love.  Stroud: History P, 2010. 
  • Order Book.  1738–1839.  COL.14.2.  Emmanuel College Archives, Cambridge University, UK.
  • Parlour Wager Book.  1797–1799.  FEL.9.4   Emmanuel College Archives, Cambridge University, UK.
‹ Back to Publication