What Jane Austen Knew
How an unfinished novel can help us with our own writing
I’ve been watching Andrew Davies’ television adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel ‘Sanditon’ recently. It has certainly livened up Sunday night viewing no end! Austen only wrote eleven chapters of the novel, originally entitled ‘The Brothers.’ She stopped writing it in March 1817 when the symptoms of the Addison Disease that experts think was to eventually kill her, became intolerable. She died four months later, aged only 41. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to write those chapters. According to Wikipedia the symptoms of Addison’s disease include fatigue, light-headedness upon standing or difficulty standing, muscle weakness, fever, weight loss, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, sweating, changes in mood or personality, and joint and muscle pains. There must have been times when she had to force her pen across the page and summon every ounce of energy to think up ideas. It was never likely to be her best work, yet in some ways, Austen, with six other novels behind her, was at the height of her novelist’s powers. She knew what worked in fiction and to some extent the formula she followed is still effective today.
The novel starts with a carriage accident and a chance encounter between the young heroine, Charlotte Heywood and Mr Parker, one of three fascinating brothers. Austen knew that a dramatic start always hooks a reader and we are immediately pulled in by this powerful incident. Plot-wise it gives Austen a means of transporting her heroine into a new place and to be with new people – introducing change is another great device for providing interest and developing character. Once at Sanditon, Charlotte encounters the formidable twice-widowed aristocrat Lady Denham (think Lady Catherine de Bourgh in ‘Pride and Prejudice’) who provides an excellent foil for our young protagonist. Introducing friction is another weapon in the novelist’s armoury, and Austen knew this well. Add in some mysterious behaviour between a young man and woman, the arrival of an attractive new Parker brother, an exotic heiress, a buffoon, and a naïve yet confident young women and you have all the potential for a compelling novel.
It was tragic that Jane Austen died so young. Who knows how successful Sanditon would have been had she been well enough to finish it? Yet those eleven chapters and the six brilliant novels that preceded them have paved the way for writers from the early nineteenth century onwards to concoct stories and create characters that are still the basis for successful writing today.