Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s Experiments

On Radio 4’s In Our Time in November, John Mullan described Jane Austen as ‘one of the great experimental writers of European fiction’. I agree, and I also think that this assessment can be taken more literally than Mullan perhaps intended. In a recent essay in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature, I argue that Austen’s Sanditon, her final novel which remained unfinished at her death, presents a new style of fictional narrative which borrows from the empirical and observational practices of nineteenth-century science. As I wrote in a previous post on Sanditon, this novel adopts a forensic and objective narrative stance, through which the narrator bestows a sceptical and impartial attention on the fragment’s various characters. In this post, I want to argue that the methods of scientific experimentation also help to inform the literary experiment that Austen conducts in Sanditon.

As Charlotte Heywood, Sanditon’s heroine, promenades along the terrace of the eponymous seaside resort, she meets Sir Edward Denham coming out of the local library. In an effort to impress her, Sir Edward boasts of his credentials as a discerning reader of novels:

‘The mere trash of the common circulating library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can be drawn.—In vain may we put them into a literary alembic;—we distil nothing which can add to science.—You understand me I am sure?’

‘I am not quite certain that I do’, replies Charlotte. Her hesitant response isn’t surprising, because Sir Edward’s account of his tastes is bafflingly inconsistent. Despite borrowing several novels from the circulating library, he dismisses such novels as trash, contributing nothing to ‘science’. He uses this word in its traditional sense, meaning general ‘knowledge or understanding acquired by study’, but his identification of the novel as a ‘literary alembic’, an instrument of experimentation, also points to a newer definition of science as a methodology, concerned ‘with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods’ of verification (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘science’, definitions 2 and 4b).

But while Sir Edward implies that the novel should be capable of reaching conclusions through experimental methods, he contradicts himself by casually dismissing the relevance of ‘ordinary occurrences’, the observable and repeatable events on which scientific knowledge depends. Sir Edward is an object of ridicule in Sanditon: here, Austen’s satire is targeted not at his use of the alembic metaphor but at his failure to grasp its significance for the novel as a form. Perhaps even more in this fragment than in Austen’s other novels, everyday occurrences, and the ‘discordant principles’ of the characters involved in them, constitute the raw materials which, distilled and analysed by the impartial narrative voice, form the basis of a kind of literary experimentation.

This method of objective experimentation is directly discussed, at times, by the novel’s characters. For instance, Mr Parker, the financial speculator who befriends the Heywood family, starts to describe to Charlotte his relationship with his business partner Lady Denham, but then pauses: ‘Those who tell their own story you know must be listened to with caution.—When you see us in contact, you will judge for yourself’. Parker’s statement is significant for two reasons: first, because it shows that the importance of evidence-based judgement and knowledge is recognised by Sanditon’s characters; and second, because it suggests that, both for the characters and the readers of fictional narratives, such knowledge must be founded on the observation not of individuals but of characters ‘in contact’ with each other.

James Chandler has argued that characterization in the novels of Austen’s contemporary Maria Edgeworth can be read as a scientific process, structured on the methodological model ‘that forms the basis of all experimental knowledge: the capacity to compare observations across a range of similar scenarios or objects, where the registered difference among isolated variables enables a causal analysis that facilitates discovery’. A similar argument can be made about Sanditon: narrative and characterization depend in this text not just on observation but on a form of active experimentation, which brings characters into contact in order to compare their differing perspectives. In Sanditon Austen aims to establish an impartiality of form: the objective stance of the novel’s narrative voice offers a kind of unbiased knowledge that is based on observation and experimental comparison. Sanditon constitutes evidence for the close connection between the developing definitions of ‘literature’ and ‘science’ in the early nineteenth century, and it suggests that scientific methods played a significant part in Austen’s understanding of the novel as a form.

Five Reasons to Read Jane Austen’s Sanditon

I’ve just published an essay on Jane Austen in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature. Rather than discussing any of Austen’s (extremely popular) six published novels, though, the essay focuses on Sanditon, the unfinished novel on which she was working during her months of illness before her death in July 1817. Sanditon is nowhere near as widely known as the published novels, and it’s strikingly different from Austen’s other writing. Here are five reasons why this fragment is an important and original part of her body of work, and why it’s more than worthy of readers’ time.

1. Manuscript

Thanks to an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, based at the University of Oxford, it’s possible to view the manuscript of Sanditon onlineSanditon wasn’t published until 1871, 54 years after Austen’s death; there was no published edition seen into print by Austen herself, and so the manuscript constitutes our only evidence of how she viewed and approached her final novel. There are no (known) surviving manuscripts of Austen’s published novels (apart from two chapters of Persuasion), and so the digitised version of the Sanditon manuscript gives readers a unique opportunity to look at Austen’s fiction as work in progress, and to examine how she revised and rethought her writing as she worked. (The website also  includes the manuscripts of the Persuasion chapters and of Austen’s other unpublished writings.)

2. Style

Austen is rightly admired for her use of free indirect discourse or free indirect style, a mode of writing in which the voice and point of view of a character or group of characters is merged with that of a third-person narrator. Austen sometimes deploys free indirect discourse for ironic effect – as in the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – and sometimes to focalise her narratives through, and elicit readers’ sympathy for, her protagonists. As Clara Tuite points out, though, Sanditon‘s narrative style is different; it “dispenses with Austen’s carefully cultivated protocols of free-indirect narrative witnessing in favor of a comparatively deracinated and disembodied third-person narrator”. In other words, Sanditon adopts a forensic and objective narrative stance, through which the narrator bestows a sceptical and impartial attention on the fragment’s various characters. Whether this is a consequence of Sanditon‘s status as an unfinished manuscript, or whether it points to a new approach to fiction on Austen’s part, it makes Sanditon an interesting source of comparison with the published novels.

3. Plot

The plot of Sanditon, of course, is unfinished, but the indications in its surviving chapters suggest that Austen was trying to do something new with the construction of her plot in this novel. Sanditon‘s protagonist is Charlotte Heywood, who, after meeting the financial speculator Mr Parker, travels with him and his family to his home village of Sanditon, which is also his pet project. Trading on the supposed curative properties of sea-bathing and the sea air, Parker plans to turn Sanditon into a destination for tourists and convalescents. In keeping with the impartiality of the narrative voice, however, Charlotte is not really privileged as the heroine of Sanditon‘s plot: she doesn’t suffer any economic or social hardship (as the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, or Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, do) and, by the end of the fragment, there is only the smallest hint of the beginning of a courtship narrative. Instead, the novel concentrates on presenting detailed descriptions of a diverse cast of characters, of the interactions between them, and, importantly, of the village of Sanditon itself.

4. Setting

By setting her novel in a seaside resort, Austen relocates her fiction, moving away from the “Country Village” with its “3 or 4 Families” which, she claimed in a letter, was “such a spot as is the delight of my life”. The characters in her other novels sometimes leave this country village, and sometimes travel to coastal towns: in Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove injures her head in a fall from the cobb at Lyme Regis. But in Sanditon the seaside is not the site of a temporary excursion; it’s the novel’s primary setting, and it represents a model of economic and social relations that is new to Austen’s fiction. Instead of exploring, with her other novels, the fixed property-based economy and social life of a particular class (the early nineteenth-century British gentry), Sanditon uses its seaside setting to explore the socially disruptive (and self-consciously modern) capitalist practices of land speculation, tourism, and commodity culture.

The cobb at Lyme Regis: Austen liked to be beside the seaside (source: Wikimedia Commons)

5. Satire

Austen, you’ll be pleased to hear, doesn’t simply endorse these new social and economic practices. She holds them up for sharp critique, satirising Parker’s inflated ambitions for Sanditon, the rapacity of other characters who hope to make a profit from tourism, and the groundless and self-involved hypochondria of the valetudinarians who come to Sanditon to be “cured”. Austen is also brilliantly aware of the way in which literature is implicated in the capitalist exchanges that underpin Sanditon’s precarious tourist economy; fiction, like land or health, is a saleable commodity, and Sanditon is full of the overt (and funny) literary satire which is central to the early Northanger Abbey, but which is less prominent in Austen’s other published novels.