Sense & Sensibility Off Grid

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“Sanditon” is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. Illustration by Rutu Modan

It has been nearly two decades since we adopted and adapted the two words, made meaningful as a study in contrasts and complementary values by a favored novelist, to remind us of what we are out to accomplish.

In recent weeks at Chan Chich Lodge the senses have been stimulated by wildlife sightings. Meditation on and in nature seems to fix, if momentarily, everything.

Apart from those meditations our guests find time to relax in a hammock, reading. Whether on paper (we prefer its off grid feel), or even on modern devices (on which there are some clear advantages) reading is a perfect complement to the day’s action. The quiet contemplation is a perfect counterpart to the nature excursions, so we are pleased to see Jane Austen has more to say than any of us knew:

On March 18, 1817, Jane Austen stopped writing a book. We know the date because she wrote it at the end of the manuscript, in her slanting hand. She had done the same at the beginning of the manuscript, on January 27th of that year. In the seven weeks in between, she had completed eleven chapters and slightly more than nine pages of a twelfth—some twenty-three thousand five hundred words. The final sentence in the manuscript runs as follows:“Poor Mr. Hollis!—It was impossible not to feel him hardly used; to be obliged to stand back in his own House and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir H. D.” This is a joke. Mr. Hollis and Sir Harry Denham are dead, and it is their respective portraits that contend for social eminence in the sitting room of Lady Denham, the woman who married and buried them both. Exactly four months after writing that line, Jane Austen died, unmarried, at the age of forty-one. Her position, unlike theirs, remains secure.

Austen was the seventh child of a country rector. The family was well connected but not wealthy. Of her six mature novels, four were published in her lifetime, and none bore her name on the title page. The one she left dangling is known as “Sanditon,” although she assigned it no title. Nor did her beloved sister Cassandra, when she copied the manuscript, long after Jane’s demise. A nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, refers to it simply as “the last Work,” in “A Memoir of Jane Austen” (1871)—still the first port of call for biographers, despite its erasure of anything that might evoke the impious, the unsavory, or the quarrelsome. “Her sweetness of temper never failed,” he writes. Never? A week after “Sanditon” came to a halt, Austen wrote, in a letter, “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” That note of exasperation is worth attending to, as we approach the bicentenary of Austen’s death, this summer. The hoopla will be fervent, among the faithful, and both the life and the works will doubtless be aired afresh on our behalf. In part, however, the shape of that life is defined by its winding down, and by the book—an unsweet and unlikely one, still too little known—that sprang from her final efforts.

Not until 1925 was “Sanditon” made available to the public. (It is still in print; try the Penguin edition, with a fine introduction by Margaret Drabble.) The response was mixed, with E. M. Forster posing the questions, in a review, that have dogged the book ever since. “Are there signs of new development in ‘Sanditon’? Or is everything overshadowed by the advance of death?” Forster, diagnosing “the effects of weakness,” leaned to the latter view: “We realize with pain that we are listening to a slightly tiresome spinster.” He should know. The truth is the opposite of what Forster proposes. Although—or precisely because—“Sanditon” was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.

Something new is afoot at the start of “Sanditon.” Austen is matchless in her openings, but none of them sound quite as eventful as this: …

Read the whole article here.

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