I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Andrew Davies adaptation for ITV and was fascinated to find out more about what was actually just a fragment of a novel. Jane Austen probably intended it to be her seventh novel beginning it in early 1817 and of which the first approximately 26,000 words survive. Midway through Chapter 11 she became unable to continue due to ill- health and passed away in July of that year. It took until 1925 for the unfinished work to be published for the first time. It is this fragment which Andrew Davies chose to finish for television, in his style. He was not the first to do this.
No further plot outlines or developments were left but in the mid 1970’s the anonymous “another lady” who was “an established author in her own right” had a go at completing the work and has done a remarkably good job. This “lady” was later revealed to be Marie Dobbs, an Australian-born author who lived and worked in many countries yet gained most fame for her version of the small, minutely observed world of Jane Austen and her creation of the seaside town of Sanditon. There have been other continuations since, the most recent being the 2019 novelisation of the TV series by Kate Riordan, but this first version is for me thoroughly satisfactory.
Charlotte Heywood is spared by her family to spend the summer at the developing seaside settlement. (Austen based it on Sidmouth but placed it geographically near Peacehaven) under the care of the Parker family led by Tom, a keen supporter of and investor in the town. Here she meets the somewhat fierce Lady Denham (played brilliantly by Anne Reid in the TV version) living with her favoured relation Clara Brereton, whose presence threatens the inheritance of two other of Lady D’s kin, Sir Edward Denham and his sister Lucy. Other visitors to the town include the heiress Miss Lambe, from a West Indian family and the rest of Tom Parker’s brothers and sisters, a bunch of hypochondriacs apart from the dashing Sidney who Austen had most likely earmarked for the hero and eventual love interest for Charlotte.
From here the TV adaptation went for Sidney emerging naked from the sea (not too many complaints with Theo James in the role), another working class man interested in Charlotte, a furtive relationship between Miss Lambe and her beau (complicated further with her being Sidney’s ward) and an odd relationship with the younger Denhams which looked incestuous but wasn’t. “Another Lady” went for much gentler fare- a trip to a neighbouring seaside town and a Ball but there is much talk of elopement and a probable upping of Austen’s original plan in the drama stakes with a little more forthright flirting than we might have anticipated and an abduction which actually happens rather than being reported which was how Austen sometimes dealt with her more dramatic twists. But having said this, I for one thought it was continued seamlessly and couldn’t see any joins (some of the later continuations dispense with Austen’s opening altogether) and I actually enjoyed myself more than I did when I last re-read “Pride And Prejudice” which may surely have Austen fans clutching at their corsages in horror but I totally relished this joint effort and it is one of this years’ reading highlights which I never would have discovered without ITV taking a chance on it.
This continuation of Sanditon was first published in 1975. I read the 1976 Corgi paperback edition.