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Nobody could catch cold by the sea; nobody wanted appetite by the sea; nobody wanted spirits; nobody wanted strength. Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing — fortifying and bracing — seemingly just as was wanted — sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the sea breeze failed, the seabath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, the sea air alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure.” ― Jane Austen, Sanditon

Inquiring readers, I have spent this week at the seaside with my extended family, an unusual occurrence for us, but one that a Regency traveler would have easily understood. The great grandparents are resting in a cool spot, while grandparents and parents have taken the grandchildren and great grandchildren to the beach. A lady’s companion and an auntie (me) are also in attendance, doing what is required to maintain family unity, feed the masses, and provide comfort and mobility for the elders.

A Calm, 1810, Gillray

A Calm, James Gillray, 1810

Life near the sea shore today is different than depicted in this 19th century image by James Gillray. Or is it really?  We still come to the beach to relax and holiday with friends and family, and to enjoy the bracing sea air and the entertainments that are available for the entire family. While modern sea-goers are more scantily dressed, we still enjoy sitting on the beach, swimming in the sea, walking along the seashore, watching ships or dolphins pass by, eating fresh seafood, reading the latest best sellers, and ogling others.

While we no longer swim behind bathing machines that have been pulled into the waters by sturdy horses, we use other equipment to make our swims more enjoyable – floats and surf boards or paddle boards. Like the women in the image, many of us wear hats for protection from the sun and sit under beach umbrellas. We comb the sands for shells and the waters for clams and crabs.

My family frequently vacations at Bethany Beach in Delaware, where my brother owns a vacation house. Each year, new vacation resorts seem to spring up on what once were cornfields and farmlands. If it weren’t for my GPS system, I would get lost, for so many of the landmarks I once knew are disappearing. It was much the same in Jane Austen’s day, when fashionable sea resorts also sprang up to satisfy the masses.  London became a convenient day’s ride from the coast as roads improved, and the benefits of fresh air and sea water were appreciated for invalids and healthy alike. In this passage from Sanditon, Mr. Parker’s and Mr. Heywood’s topic of discussion is similar to the one I had with my family as we lamented the increasingly crowded conditions and traffic jams, even as we confessed our addiction to the sea:

“Yes, I have heard of Sanditon,” replied Mr. Heywood. “Every five years, one hears of some new place or other starting up by the sea and growing the fashion. How they can half of them be filled is the wonder! Where people can be found with money and time to go to them! Bad things for a country, sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing, as I daresay you find, Sir.”

“Not at all, Sir, not at all,” cried Mr. Parker eagerly. “Quite the contrary, I assure you. A common idea, but a mistaken one. It may apply to your large, overgrown places like Brighton or Worthing or Eastbourne, but not to a small village like Sanditon, precluded by its size from experiencing any of the veils of civilization; while the growth of the place, the buildings, the nursery grounds, the demand for everything, and the sure resort of the very best company, those regular, steady, private families of thorough gentility and character who are a blessing everywhere, excite the industry of the poor and diffuse comfort and improvement among them of every sort. No, Sir, I assure you, Sanditon is not a place …”

“I do not mean to take exception to any place in particular,” answered Mr. Heywood. “I only think our coast is too full of them altogether. But we had not better try to get you …”

“Our coast is abundant enough. It demands no more. Everybody’s taste and everybody’s finances may be suited. And those good people who are trying to add to the number are, in my opinion, excessively absurd and must soon find themselves the dupes of their own fallacious calculations. Such a place as Sanditon, Sir, I may say, was wanted, was called for. Nature had marked it out , had spoken in most intelligible characters. The finest, purest sea breeze on the coast, acknowledged to be so, excellent bathing, fine hard sand, deep water ten yards from the shore, no mud, no weeds, no slimy rocks. Never was there a place more palpably designed by nature for the resort of the invalid, the very spot that thousands seemed in need of! The most desirable distance from London! One complete, measured mile nearer than Eastbourne, Only conceive, Sir, the advantage of saving a whole mile in a long journey. But Brinshore , Sir, which I daresay you have in your eye, the attempts of two or three speculating people about Brinshore this last year to raise that paltry hamlet, lying as it does between a stagnant march, a bleak moor, and the constant effluvia of a ridge of putrefying seaweed, can end in nothing but their own disappointment. “

Alas, our sojourn at the beach has ended. We must pack up our belongings and return to our daily routines. Would that vacation had lasted a week longer!

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Contributed by Tony Grant, all rights reserved. Images by Tony Grant.

Brighton, the old Pavilion and Steyne, Charles Richards

Towards the end of her life Jane Austen was writing a new sort of novel, Sanditon. It appears to have been, in it’s far from completed form, an analysis of change going on in the world of the 18th century.The main female character in this story, Charlotte Heywood, is an observer of Sanditon, its development and its occupants. Through her eyes we the reader can see the social and environmental forces that are unfolding at Sanditon and the forces that act on its attempts to be attractive to people.

Brighton pier

In our own day we are creating new communities that we hope will be sustainable in materials, energy production and lifestyle. A community called Bedzed, near Croydon in Surrey, is just such a new development.

Brighton today

Sanditon is an 18th century exploration of how a new settlement may have occurred and mistakes made and Bedzed is a modern version showing how we can learn from the past.

Royal Pavilion at Brighton

Charlotte soon learns on her way to Sanditon that there are two Sanditons. There is the old fishing village set in a sheltered valley leading down to the sea and there is the new Sanditon high on a hill with cliffs overlooking the sea. The old home of the Parkers is set in the valley just outside the fishing village and it has orchards, gardens and meadows, all the resources for self-sufficient living and it is in a sheltered aspect away from gales and the worst of the elements.

Scarborough Beach

..in a shelterd dip within 2 miles of the sea, they passed by a moderate-sized house,well fenced and planted,and rich in the garden,orchard and meadows which are the best embelilishments of such a dwelling.”
The new Parkers home, Trafalgar House, is set high on a hill with no orchards and meadows and gardens and when they first arrive is being windswept by a minor gale.

Mr Parker has a concept of a seaside settlement centred around fresh air and spectacular views. Two very good ideals but missing many other requirements for a comfortable community to work.

Trafalgar House ,on the most elevated spot on the down, was a light elegant building, standing in a small lawn with a very young plantation around it about a hundred yards from the brow of a steep, but not very lofty cliff.”

Bedzed

Bedzed, near Croydon, has been created to revolutionise people’s lives enabling them to live without wasting the resources of this planet and to live sustainably. It is situated outside a well-established town with major roads and rail links very close by. It is for people who live ordinary lives and it is designed to help them improve those ordinary lives and the planet they live on.

People move to Bedzed with typical lifestyles, and over the years change their behaviour significantly.”

The purpose of Sandition was to attract people to the seaside for health reasons. Seawater and sea air were considered, in the 18th century, the panaceas for all known ailments. They were the elixir of life. While people were there it was also hoped by Mr Parker, that they would spend their money in the new shops, buy the latest fashions, stay in the smart hotels and take part in the events of the new town, billiards, going to the library, buying presents in the gift shops, hiring bathing machines and eating the local produce.

Bedzed

Bedzed was designed for people to interact in ways that improve their lives. Much of what is hoped for Bedzed are things that communities over the ages have provided for their people. It is small enough and big enough to create what is termed a,” a community spirit.” People come together in sports teams, community events such as fetes and to meet and make community decisions; a sort ground level politics. What is necessary for our modern age is to do it sustainably.

the community have created their own facilities and groups to improve quality of life and reduce their environmental impact.”

Sustainability in the 18th century has many of the elements we think of today as sustainability. People grew their own produce, many house roofs were made from straw or reeds, recycled waste was used as food for animals or dug it into the soil to fertilise it, as with human waste and they used the natural elements as a power source. The wind to dry clothes, animals to move machinery and dead wood or sustainable forestry were used to provide fuel. Clay for bricks, rocks, slate and large amounts of wood were also taken for building and these might not have been sustainable practices even the 18th century. The increasingly massive use of coal certainly was not.

A calm, Gillray, 1810

The old fishing village of Sanditon and the Parkers first home, set snuggly in the valley, kept to these mostly sustainable principles. The new Sanditon, on the hill got rid of many of these essential practices. All the services, shops, hotels houses and transport were imposed on the hill and materials had to be got up there.

Ramsgate

People become the secondary thought in that they were expected to fit in. The new Sanditon is what Mr Parker thinks people want. It is an example of modernisation removing peoples connection with the world they live in. It is an example of the designers of our world not listening to the people they are providing for. The new Sanditon is a vision of the way the world has gone. The old Sanditon is an example of where we could go.

Bedzed

Total sustainabliltiy in our modern age is technically possible. Bedzed is run completely on sustainable practices. Water is recycled, the use of insulation, materials from sustainable sources, some of it recycled, the use of local materials as much as possible to reduce transport costs and pollution, the sharing of electric cars and the provision of sustainable energy from it’s own pwoerplant fuelled by waste materials are all sustainable practices. What is most important of all, the people who live in Bedzed make the choices and think of the ideas that create the world they live in.

the design solves problems such as heating and water usage.” And “the design and services offered help people make sustainable choices such as walking rather than driving.”

Windmill, sphagnum moss roof, recycled water

One of the most encouraging things I have seen in recent years in south London, is an enormous DIY store that has recently been built about half a mile from where I live. It uses rain water to flush the toilets, has a sphagnum moss roof, triple glazing for extra insulation, solar panels, a heating system where water is heated naturally through underground pipes, and one enormous windmill surmounting the lot. Impressive? You bet!!!!!! There is a new high rise office tower in central London that looks as though a knife has sliced off the top at a sharp angle. There are three gigantic oval holes in this angular top. Each oval hole contains a wind turbine. The world really is adapting.

Sliced off top and wind turbines

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I’m a little late for the party, but a full day still remains until Laurel Ann at Austenprose finishes her in-depth tour of Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last, unfinished novel. Click on this page to catch up on all the links and comments and guest posts.

Sea Bathing in Scarborough, 1813

Read more about the seaside and seaside fashions on this blog to round out your knowledge of how the Regency folks enjoyed their seaside excursions:

Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813, is a digitized book about the seaside resort of Scarborough, including color plates.

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The reissue of the Oxford World’s Classic Northanger Abbey includes Jane Austen’s lesser known works: Lady Susan, The Watsons (a fragment), and Sanditon (Jane’s unfinished last work). As with Pride and Prejudice, this new publication comes with an introduction (excellently written by Claudia L. Johnson, but included in a previous edition) and a wealth of resources in the form of explanatory notes, source bibliography, and appendix. So much has been written about Northanger Abbey by experts whose knowledge of that excellent work eclipse mine, that I will concentrate on one of Jane’s more fascinating but lesser known earlier works, Lady Susan. This book was written around 1793-1794 (there are several date estimates) but it was not published until 1871 in Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen, almost a half century after Jane Austen’s death. While Jane recopied the book she did not revise it; it was evidently never meant for publication.

Author Joe Queenan included Lady Susan in his 2004 volume, The Malcontents: The Best Bitter, Cynical, and Satirical Writing in the World, Explaining why he chose this short work for his book, he writes:

Why did I choose Jane Austen’s less famous and somewhat atypical Lady Susan rather than an excerpt from Sense and Sensiblility, Emma, or Pride and Prejudice? Because as much as possible I wanted to use complete works rather than fragments, and because this little jewel is unbelievably vicious. Also , it is a superb example of the novel composed entirely of letters, and one can never have too many of those in a collection. – p 22.

If you have not read Lady Susan before, be prepared to encounter an anti-Jane heroine; a beautiful, manipulative, calculating, and self-indulgent widow; a woman so cold-hearted in her machinations that she puts her own interests ahead of her daughter’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. Having become accustomed to the innate goodness of Jane’s heroines, I had to read the following passage twice before I fully understood that Lady Susan was made of different stuff than Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Elliot:

I have been called an unkind mother, but it was the sacred impulse of maternal affection, it was the advantage of my daughter that led me on; and if that daughter were not the greatest simpleton on earth, I might have been rewarded for my exertions as I ought.

Sir James did make proposals to me for Frederica; but Frederica, who was born to be the torment of my life, chose to set herself so violently against the match that I thought it better to lay aside the scheme for the present. I have more than once repented that I did not marry him myself; and were he but one degree less contemptibly weak I certainly should: but I must own myself rather romantic in that respect, and that riches only will not satisfy me.

In this short passage Lady Susan reveals her true thoughts to her friend, Alicia Johnson, an equally cool and calculating character.  Lady Susan pretends to be a loving mother and friend, but her frank words belie her actions, and she clearly exults in her talent for manipulating a situation (or man) to suit her needs. She lies without compunction to her sister-in-law, Catherine, a woman she disliked so intensely that she tried to prevent her marriage to her brother. Catherine, no simpering fool, mistrusts her unwanted house guest, and in most situations sees right through her.

The cat and mouse games played by the main characters set up the emotional tension in this novel. Lady Susan believes she is fooling everyone, although she is not. Her brash plans quickly unravel as her equally savvy opponents outmaneuver her, but before her downfall, she collects victims along the way, in particular Mrs. Mainwaring, whose marriage is destroyed by Lady Susan’s flirtation with her husband. Reginald de Courcy, Catherine’s brother, arrives on the scene full of mistrust and dislike for the non-grieving widow. Lady Susan effortlessly wraps him around her little finger until he learns the truth about her.  In the end she marries Sir James, the young and foolish but rich young man she had chosen for her daughter.

As Jay Arnold Levine pointed out in ‘Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Character of the Merry Widow, Lady Susan is reminiscent of the lascivious and hypocritical widows written about in 18th century Restoration literature, like Fielding’s Lady Booby and Tom Jones‘ Lady Bellaston.  “Dangerously endowed with experience and independence”, Lady Susan “must be regarded as the culmination of the earlier phase of literary burlesque.”

Susan Anthony’s point of view differs from Mr. Levine’s, although it is not incompatible with it. In ‘The Perfect Model of a Woman’: Femininity and Power in Lady Susan, she writes:

Imperceptibly, we are drawn into this sparser imaginative world. We become alert to the cross-play of purposes, aware of suspect motivation, hidden agendas, and the deceptiveness of Language. Lady Susan gradually exposes the politics of family life and the machinations of women in a conservative, restrictive, and male-dominated society, founded on inherited wealth and policed by gossip: the option of ‘the world.’…Lady Susan makes apparent that money, power, and the freedom to act independently are the prerogatives of men. For a woman, even wealth cannot empower: it serves simply to license any fortune-hunter she is foolish enough to marry.

Jane’s epistolary novel is a remarkable and sophisticated achievement for a budding 20-year-old author. There are faults to be sure (Claudia Johnson calls Lady Susan’s world “cartoonish”), and the ending is abrupt and switches from the first-person letter to the third-person narrative, but one cannot mistake Jane Austen’s genius in telling this tale of a woman who “has the power to inflame” but not the power to direct her life. The book ends unhappily for our protagonist. As Susan Anthony observes, “Disappointment of a bad husband is Lady Susan’s fitting punishment,” but before that denouement, the reader has been taken on a splendid literary ride.

More Links:

  • ‘Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Character of the Merry Widow’, Jay Arnold Levine, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol 1, No. 4, Nineteenth Century. (Autumn, 1961), pp. 23-34.

Image: Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffold, Mistress of George II, painted by Charles Jervas

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