Cassandra’s handwritten copy of Sanditon

Text by Professor Michael Biddiss, Volunteer at Jane Austen's House

Jane’s last novel, now known as Sanditon, was begun at Chawton late in January 1817 but abandoned incomplete on 18 March as her final illness worsened. Her untitled working draft, held in Cambridge, shows textual adjustments that provide the most substantial surviving record of the author’s approach to composition.  That manuscript then became the basis for the tidied copy displayed here, written by her sister into three booklets for their brother Francis not earlier than 1831.

The story as we have it (around 24,000 words, not fully published until 1925) unfolds mainly in the fictional village of Sanditon on the Sussex coast.  There the description of sparkling waves and bracing breezes certainly reflects Jane’s own longstanding delight in seaside leisure.  However, much of her wit now targets those reckless landowners who during the Regency period were gambling their fortunes on developing too many new resorts of this kind, thereby disturbing traditional patterns of community.  Her potential heroine, Charlotte Heywood, becomes our guide to these and other follies-by-the-sea.  We encounter, for example, fresh additions to Jane’s gallery of figures gripped by imaginary illness, plus a penniless baronet whose plans for seducing wealthy heiresses spring from over-exposure to ‘sentimental novels’.

The work also introduces a rich young lady on holiday from the Caribbean (the only character with mixed-race heritage in all of Austen) whose intended fate in any completed version of the story must stay forever uncertain.  Nor can we now be sure whether the principal developer’s latest ambition, for construction of a cliff-top Waterloo Crescent, was due to trigger the eventual ruin of his whole business venture.

Sanditon, with its vigorous narrative and bold characterization, remains a fragment full of promise.  Cut short by weakness of body rather than of creative imagination, it stands as Jane’s courageous farewell to her art.