21 August 2019

Sanditon by Jane Austen

I'm in no rush to bid farewell to summer but the swish of silk from period novels has always been welcome as the mornings get darker and the nights draw in.  I'm not sure why but it's been that way for as long as I can remember.  A much-anticipated eight-part dramatization of Sanditon (ITV) will be airing in a few days.  Jane Austen's unfinished manuscript was so far off my radar it was practically forgotten so when Oxford University Press kindly asked if I would like a copy I eagerly said yes, please!

'A Gentleman and Lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings and East-Bourne, being induced by Business to quit the high road, and attempt a very rough Lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent half rock, half sand.'

As luck would have it, their misfortune happens within a stone's throw of the 'only Gentleman's House near the lane' and as plot devices go, it's a sound one.  Mr Parker has sprained his ankle in the accident and we know from experience that a mild affliction in Austen's novels goes a long way to gaining entry into an obliging home for days, if not longer.

'There, I fancy lies my cure' - pointing to the neat-looking end of a Cottage, which was seen romantically situated among wood on a high Eminance at some little Distance - 'Does not that promise to be the very place?'

The owners of this particular obliging household are the Heywoods.  Austen paints a portrait of a warm and generous family while hilariously pointing out the fact that had they lived within their means and did not have the expense of maintaining fourteen children the Heywoods could afford 'symptoms of the Gout'. 

When the Parkers are finally able to continue on to Sanditon they offer to host the Heywoods eldest daughter back at their home.  As you can imagine, Charlotte's parents are thrilled by the prospect of their daughter being introduced into wider company.  A shopping list is immediately drawn up with such necessaries as parasols, gloves, brooches and other accouterments.  Charlotte's long-suffering father would be quite happy to see them all off to Sanditon without the need to spend any money at all.

The closer the travelling group gets to Sandition, Charlotte eyes an array of shops from a Milliner to a Shoemaker and even a Library and Billiard Room.  Just ahead lies the seashore dotted with bathing machines - huts drawn by horses into the water, allowing visitors to dive in with their modesty intact.

The second half of Sanditon is where Austen's razor-sharp wit slips into high gear.  With the family back at home and a guest in tow they are inundated by company and curious relatives.  Mr Parker's ridiculous siblings and their hypochondria are a treat with ailments such as Spasmodic Bile, Headache and Nerves.  Lady Denham, the Great Lady of the neighbourhood, has gathered wealth and a title from two marriages creating near farcical drama from relatives vying for her favour...and let's be honest, her purse.

'Miss Esther wants me to invite her and her Brother to spend a week with me at Sanditon House, as I did last Summer - but I shan't.  She's been trying to get round me every way, with her praise of this, and her praise of that; but I saw what she was about.  I saw through it all.  I am not very easily taken-in my Dear'.

But Lady Denham is far from innocent when it comes to scheming and has hopes of seeing Sir Edward, a nephew through marriage, married off to a Lady of some fortune.  And right on cue enters Mrs Griffiths with three young women from her Ladies Seminary, one of which is from the West Indies and an extremely wealthy family.

For me the joy of Austen comes from the machinations - some bumbling, some sly and calculating.  It's an ages old formula that never gets old if it's done well.  I like to imagine Jane Austen, months from her death, still enthusiastically creating female characters who recognized the behaviour of a wily man.   The book that we know as Sanditon is merely the groundwork (and it's brilliant) for what would have been an even better novel in its entirety had Austen lived long enough to finish it.  Some reviewers have said they couldn't tell where Austen left off and another writer produced an ending.  I could, but having said that, it's a fairly decent attempt.

Thank you to Oxford University Press for sending me a copy of this wonderful story.  The characters have stayed with me days after finishing it.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much I'm packing it in my travel case for the train ride to East Sussex in September!

Venus's bathing (Margate) by Thomas Rowlandson
(cover illustration)

11 August 2019

After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The first line of this novel tells us it's November.  For a fleeting moment I thought about shelving it until that chilly month because I enjoy that sort of reading parallel .  But once you've entered the post-war world of Notting Hill flats, gas fires, vintage puddings, and a country house in Sussex there really is no going back.  And if those things haven't ticked enough boxes for you - the family business is a publishing company.

Esme is the matriarch of the family, but at fifty-eight she's a far cry from lace handkerchiefs and rheumy eyes.  Widowed when her husband, Julius, made a heroic outing in a sailboat to save soldiers in Dunkirk, she fills her day with the duties of a lady in her sphere.  Flower arranging for the church, tending the garden, writing letters and organizing dinner parties are the practicals.  While occupied in a task, Esme's memories venture to the past and the love of her life - not her husband but Felix.  When they met at the beginning of the war, Felix was a young man of twenty-four, fourteen years younger than herself....but that was almost twenty years ago.

Sisters Cressy and Emma live together in a slightly worn-down flat that needs yet another repair.  Emma, younger by ten years, is the nurturing one.  Cressy was widowed while still a teen during WWII and continually seeks comfort from affairs with married men.  The trajectory usually repeats itself - euphoria followed by tears.  With a talent for playing the piano at the concert level, it's heartbreaking that she fails to invest in herself.  Despite witnessing pitfall after pitfall, Emma also gets caught up in a tragic relationship that will make you wish you could reach through the page to save her.

The main characters converge during a weekend in Sussex.  Esme chooses the flowers for her dinner party, Cressy dries her tears, Emma invites her new friend, Dan, at the last minute, and Felix gets in touch after nearly two decades.  Emotion fills the air but it's tempered by Esme's housekeeper, Mrs Hanwell.  I adore Elizabeth Jane Howard's attention to the kitchen....kedgeree, fish pie, lemon pancakes, green jelly rabbit with custard, gingerbread, plum tart and Castle pudding (I had to google it).

First published in 1965, After Julius would have left some readers unsettled by Howard's direct handling of topics such as adultery, abortion, premarital sex, war, and rape.  It's an unsettling read in 2019.  Readers searching for their next book might be lulled into thinking this is a warm bath sort of book judging by the pretty cover - it so isn't that.  You'll get more than you bargained for and that's not a bad thing.  A brilliant and unforgettable read.

Composition in Pink and Green by Catherine Mann, Marchioness of Queensberry
1931