Hypochondria to Combat Boredom in Austen’s Sanditon

Sanditon is Jane Austen’s last novel that was kindly completed by “Another Lady.” Other versions have been written but none as well known as this one. I was debating whether or not to tell you when Austen’s writing ends and Another Lady’s begins but decided against it so that you can determine for yourself if you think Another Lady sticks to Austen’s style. For my part, when I first read it several years ago, I thought she did quite well. This time, however, I didn’t think so. That’s not to say she did poorly, but more that my knowledge of Austen’s writing is greater, thus making me more fastidious and critical. What Another Lady does do well, though, is the plot. She throws in twists and turns that Austen would be proud of, all while keeping the characters true to the sketches Austen had laid out in her fragment.

Three of those characters, though minor, are worth considering in more detail because for the first time in one of her novels, she hits upon medicine. Have I ever mentioned I’m a sucker for medicine in literature of the long eighteenth century? Naturally, that’s what I would pick up on before anything else in Sanditon. Granted, part of the reason for touching upon medicine would be because the novel is set at a newly fashioned seaside resort. By “newly fashioned,” I mean that two of its inhabitants shower it with money in an attempt to bring it to the forefront as a destination akin to Brighton, or any other fashionable seaside town. Mr. Parker, one of said inhabitants, overturns his carriage on his way to fetch a surgeon he saw an advertisement for. We find that he is “convinced that the advantage of a medical man at hand would very materially promote the rise and prosperity of [Sanditon].” Having unfortunately gotten the name of the village wrong and there being no surgeon for his town or for his foot, he says, “once at home, we have our remedy at hand [. . .]. A little of our own bracing sea air will soon set me on my feet again.” It becomes a running theme in the novel to have Mr. Parker constantly attest to the “bracing sea air” as a remedy for most aches, pains, and illnesses.

While Mr. Parker relies on the sea, his sisters hold firm to herbs, potions, and tonics for their ailments, which are aplenty. We are first introduced to Miss Diana Parker in a letter, where she spends the majority of it outlining how prone to sickness she, her sister, and her youngest brother are, quite to the extent that Charlotte Heywood believes they are invalids. However, their arrival in Sanditon quickly dispels that thought for the more sobering one that there was “a good deal of fancy in such an extraordinary state of health,” and it was “more like the amusement of eager minds in want of employment than of actual afflictions and relief.” The Parkers are wealthy enough to not need employment, so what do they do with all this time on their hands? They imagine themselves ill and fragile. Not only do they prescribe remedies for their imaginary illnesses, they believe it their duty to do so for everyone who comes in contact with them, whether they need or want their opinion. Diana Parker informs Charlotte that they “are sent into this world to be as extensively useful as possible, and where some degree of strength of mind is given, it is not a feeble body which will excuse us.” In fact, the whole Parker family needs to be useful. Mr. Parker uses it for promoting Sanditon, Sidney in managing everyone around him, and the sisters in intruding in lives and treating others.

One of the victims of Diana Parker’s boredom is Arthur Parker, who Charlotte can not believe as feeble as Diana or Susan make him out to be. Sidney Parker, the middle brother, explains:

Arthur’s health has always been an obsession of theirs. My eldest brother and I had the advantage of being sent away to school before our parents died and thus escaped falling into our sisters’ care. Arthur, as you see, was not so lucky. They have cosseted him and pandered to him for so long that he positively enjoys being an invalid now.

And with that, we get a glimpse into the motivation behind Arthur’s comments and actions. While it seems that he is a lost cause, we find that he’s not because by the end of the book, he’s met someone “quite unique—a genuine invalid, who despise[s] her own weakness, dislike[s] talking about her symptoms, and overtaxe[s] her strength in her eagerness to lead a normal life.” After getting to know Adela, he changes. He starts to care less about himself and more about her, until he no longer uses illnesses to get what he wants. Diana and Susan are still, as ever, the invalids, but Arthur grows from a boy to a man. He begins to collect and identify seaweed, and this obscure hobby occupies his time. He has something to do during the day, something to focus on other than indigestion. Hypochondria goes out the door with the boredom. Diana and Susan Parker are too far gone to change their ways, but perhaps there’s no need to. After all, it’s not like their considerable medicinal knowledge doesn’t sometimes come in handy.

If you’d like a more coherent and thought out piece on medicine in literature, let me know. I’ve got my dissertation ready, and that thing is chock full of breast cancer, hysteria, and strange views on nerves and breast feeding to delight every reader! In the end, I suggest reading Sanditon, bearing in mind that there are some stylistic differences, which is only inevitable when one person tries to mimic another. But it merits its own reading for the simple fact that it’s a pleasant story. So grab yourself a copy before you get so bored you imagine arthritic pains paralyzing you.


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