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In Sanditon, Austen explored her interest in the verbal construction of a society by means of a town – and a set of families – that is still in the process of being formed. Austen began work on the novel in January 1817 and abandoned it on 18 March 1817. The manuscript for Sanditon was originally titled "The Brothers", possibly after the Parker brothers in the story. After her death, her family renamed it "Sanditon". The original manuscript includes only the first eleven chapters of the story.
The novel centres on Charlotte Heywood, the eldest daughter of the large family of a country gentleman from Willingden, Sussex. The narrative opens when the carriage of Mr. and Mrs. Parker of Sanditon topples over on a hill near the Heywood home. Because Mr. Parker is injured in the crash, and the carriage needs repairs, the Parkers stay with the Heywood family for a fortnight. During this time, Mr. Parker talks fondly of Sanditon, a town which until a few years before had been a small, unpretentious fishing village. With his business partner, Lady Denham, Mr. Parker hopes to make Sanditon into a fashionable seaside resort. Mr. Parker's enormous enthusiasm for his plans to improve and modernise Sanditon has resulted in the installation of bathing machines and the construction of a new home for himself and his family near the seashore. Upon repair of the carriage and improvement to Mr. Parker's foot, the Parkers return to Sanditon, bringing Charlotte with them as their summer guest.
Upon arrival in Sanditon, Charlotte meets the inhabitants of the town. Prominent among them is Lady Denham, a twice-widowed woman who received a fortune from her first husband and a title from her second. Lady Denham lives with her poor niece Clara Brereton, who is a sweet and beautiful, yet impoverished, young lady. Also living in Sanditon are Sir Edward Denham and his sister Esther, Lady Denham's nephew and niece by her second husband. The siblings are poor and are thought to be seeking Lady Denham's fortune. Sir Edward is described as a silly and very florid man, though handsome.
After settling in with the Parkers and encountering the various neighbours, Charlotte and Mr. and Mrs. Parker are surprised by a visit from Mr. Parker's two sisters and younger brother, all of whom are self-declared invalids. However, given their level of activity and seeming strength, Charlotte quickly surmises that their complaints are invented. Diana Parker has come on a mission to secure a house for a wealthy family from the West Indies, although she has not specifically been asked for her aid. She also brings word of a second large party, a girl's school, which is intending to summer at Sanditon. This news causes a stir in the small town, especially for Mr. Parker, whose fondest wish is the promotion of tourism in the town.
With the arrival of Mrs. Griffiths to Sanditon, it soon becomes apparent that the family from the West Indies and the girl's school group are one and the same. The visitors consist of Miss Lambe, a "half mulatto"  rich young woman of about seventeen from the West Indies, and the two Miss Beauforts, common English girls. In short order, Lady Denham calls on Mrs. Griffiths to be introduced to Miss Lambe, the very sickly and very rich heiress that she intends her nephew Sir Edward to marry.
A carriage unexpectedly arrives bearing Sidney Parker, the second eldest Parker brother. He will be staying in town for a few days with two friends who will join him shortly. Sidney Parker is around 27 or 28 and Charlotte finds him very good looking with a decided air of fashion.
The book fragment ends when Mrs. Parker and Charlotte visit Sanditon House, Lady Denham's residence. There Charlotte spots Clara Brereton seated with Sir Edward Denham at her side having an intimate conversation in the garden and surmises that they must have a secret understanding. When they arrive inside, Charlotte observes that a large portrait of Sir Henry Denham hangs over the fireplace, whereas Lady Denham's first husband, who owned Sanditon House, only gets a miniature in the corner—obliged to sit back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Henry Denham.
The people of "modern Sanditon", as Austen calls it, have moved out of the "old house – the house of [their] forefathers" and are busily constructing a new world in the form of a modern seaside commercial town. The town of Sanditon is probably based on Worthing, where Austen stayed in late 1805 when the resort was first being developed; or on Eastbourne; or on Bognor Regis, whose founder Richard Hotham was the inspiration for Mr Parker (and the town contained a library at that time as described in the book). The town is less of an actual reality than it is an ideal of the inhabitants – one that they express in their descriptions. These inhabitants have a conception of the town's identity and of the way in which this identity should be spread to, and appreciated by, the world:
- "My name perhaps… may be unknown at this distance from the coast – but Sanditon itself – everybody has heard of Sanditon, – the favourite – for a young and rising bathing-place, certainly the favourite spot of all that are to be found along the coast of Sussex; – the most favoured by nature, and promising to be the most chosen by man." (Sanditon)
However, the founders of Sanditon must create the town within their own circle of intimate acquaintances before it may be spread to the world. Each time these townsfolk meet, their "conversation turn[s] entirely upon Sanditon, its present number of visitants and the chances of a good season". Thus, these people are the founders and supporters of the town by means of the images that they share through conversation; they build the town by means of words with greater facility than it is built in reality. Mr. Parker, one of the founders and most eager creators of the town demonstrates this oral formation when discussing the relation between the building of streets and the arrival of lodgers: "if we have encouragement enough this year for a little crescent to be ventured on… then, we shall be able to call it Waterloo Crescent – and the name joined to the form of the building, which always takes, will give us the command of lodgers". Later, events demonstrate that there is not likely to be such an abundance of lodgers, and that the town is therefore unlikely to grow so rapidly as Mr. Parker expresses; yet, in his mind and in his communications, the town thrives.
From these conversations amongst intimates, Sanditon's fame spreads through letters and by word of mouth. Mr. Parker's sister sends him a letter in which she states that she has "secur[ed]… two large families… I will not tell you how many people I have employed in the business – Wheel within wheel". This letter provides a perfect description of the epistolary and oral communication that furthers the creation of the town by means of reputation. But Austen develops a sense of the artificial foundation of the town by undermining the gossip with which she built it in the first chapters of the story: the two families turn out to be one – exaggerated in number by the multiple "intermediate friend[s]2 who had relayed the information – "Mrs. Charles Dupuis lives almost next door to a lady, who has a relation lately settled at Clapham, who actually attends the seminary and gives lessons on eloquence and Belles Lettres". Austen allows the reader to imagine the development of the town's reputation as it spread from mouth to mouth in one direction and the way in which the number of families was augmented in the other.
Thus, Sanditon is a text that demonstrates Austen's interest in the practical results of communication – an issue with which she had experimented since she used the epistolary novel form in such early works as Lady Susan.
Continuations and adaptations
Because Austen completed setting the scene for Sanditon, it has been a favourite of "continuators" – later writers who try to complete the novel within Austen's vision while emulating her style. Such "completed" versions of Sanditon include:
- Sanditon, by Jane Austen and "another lady", ISBN 0-684-84342-0; also published as Sanditon, by Jane Austen and Marie Dobbs, ISBN 3-423-12666-3 and Sanditon, by Jane Austen and Anne Telscombe, ISBN 0-395-20284-1
- A Completion of Sanditon, by Juliette Shapiro, ISBN 1-58939-503-4 (does not include Austen's text)
- A Return to Sanditon: a completion of Jane Austen's fragment, by Anne Toledo, ISBN 978-1-4580-7426-3 (includes Austen's text)
- Sanditon, by Jane Austen and completed by D.J. Eden, ISBN 0-7541-1610-7
- Jane Austen's Sanditon: A continuation, by Anna Austen Lefroy (Austen's niece), ISBN 0-942506-04-9 (also unfinished)
- Jane Austen out of the blue, by Donald Measham, ISBN 978-1-84728-648-2
- Jane Austen's Charlotte, by Jane Austen and completed by Julia Barrett, ISBN 0-87131-908-X
- A Cure for All Diseases (Canada and US title: The Price of Butcher's Meat) by Reginald Hill ISBN 978-0-06-145193-5, a novel in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, is acknowledged by the author to be a "completion" of Sanditon. In Hill's novel, the village is renamed Sandytown, and lies on the Yorkshire coast.
- "Welcome to Sanditon", a modernised mini webseries adaptation set in California, produced by the creators of "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" and premiered on 13 May 2013. Not continuing the story, the adaptation uses deus ex machina to end where Austen left off, replacing Charlotte with [Fitz]William Darcy's sister, Georgiana (Gigi) from Pride and Prejudice. Near the end, William makes an appearance, pulling Gigi out from her role as Charlotte.
- "Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths." http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/fr008641.html
- Clarke, Jan, Jane Austen Society Report 2008, pages 86–105.
- Halperin, John, "Jane Austen's Anti-Romantic Fragment: Some Notes on Sanditon", 1983, University of Tulsa
- Cullen, Pamela V., "A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams", London, Elliott & Thompson, 2006, ISBN 1-904027-19-9
- Marie Dobbs, an Australian journalist, published novels under the pseudonym "Anne Telscombe", and initially published Sanditon as "another lady" in 1975; later editions appear to have been published under all three names. See LCCN n50008228.
- Austen, Jane. Sanditon and Other Stories. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Everyman’s Library, 1996.
- Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Gossip. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1985.
- Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage, 1997.
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