Charlotte – Julia Barrett
When Meg Hayward asked me to do a brief review of Julia Barrett’s Charlotte, written as a completion of Sanditon, I am sure that she did not regard me as ‘an elegant female’ of the type envisioned by Mr Collins, too ladylike and fearful of offending against propriety to express an honest opinion, but rather as someone who would be, in Elizabeth Bennet’s words, ‘a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.’ Meg’s own summing up of the book, not very complimentary, was certainly rational and honest, and as I read I found myself agreeing with her wholeheartedly.
I oppose, on principle, any attempt to add to the fragment which Jane Austen has left us but leaving this aside, what can we reasonably expect from the foolhardy writer who makes that attempt? As far as plot is concerned, we should be able to accept the possibility that it is a reasonable development of what the original author may have intended. If so, how does this effort measure up?
In her introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of Lady Susan, the Watsons and Sanditon, Margaret Drabble says that ‘the whole tone of the novel is very different from that of its immediate predecessor, Persuasion,’ and ‘that many of the characters are comic caricatures and that the chief focus is not on subtle characterisation and delicate relationships but on Sanditon itself and the spirit of change it represents.’
Julia Barrett’s flight of fancy leads her to introduce some unlikely elements into the plot. Under the influence of what I can best describe as a London con man the quiet little resort becomes the scene of skirmishes between smugglers and the Excise and Revenue men. Horse racing is to be introduced and the heroine’s gullible brother is induced to join the said con man as he plans to build a racecourse at Sanditon to rival Epsom. I think that Ms Barrett may have taken as her model not Jane Austen but a Victorian melodrama.
Another thing that we could reasonably expect is that the characters, whether caricatures or not, should develop along the lines that Jane Austen has indicated and that their manner of speaking and their actions should be appropriate. This is far from the case. In the original, Mr Parker, with his child-like enthusiasm and his ambitious plans for Sanditon is reminiscent of Mr Weston, but Ms Barrett’s Mr Parker could be described as ‘the poor man’s Mr Weston’, while ‘the Great Lady of Sanditon’, Lady Denham, is the ‘poor woman’s Lady Catherine’. The heroine, Charlotte, has echoes of Emma but whereas Jane Austen, in the first few paragraphs of her novel of that name, gives us a brilliant thumbnail sketch of her heroine, Ms Barrett takes several boring pages to present her own heroine and to excuse or explain her ill-mannered behaviour when she visits Lady Denham’s home, introduced by her benefactor, Mrs Parker. Jane Austen’s Charlotte, coming from a respectable family with responsible right-thinking parents would never have allowed herself the mischievous comment which Ms Barrett’s Charlotte makes a propos Lady Denham’s two late husbands. Overhearing her remark, Lady Denham rebukes her thus ‘And are all of your brothers and sisters equally encouraged in their insolence?’ Even Lady Catherine might have hesitated to ask such a question and Charlotte’s efforts to make amends are crude and clumsy.
‘Artful appurtenances’ indeed! I venture to suggest that Jane Austen would be turning in her grave.
Which brings me to the second quarrel I have with Ms Barrett’s version. Apart from consistency of character and plot we can justifiably expect that an effort to echo the style of the original work will be reasonably successful. This is far from the case. At one stage the designated hero, Sidney Parker (‘A poor woman’s Mr Darcy’) catches sight of his hypochondriacal brother Arthur ‘much engaged in conversation with a remarkably attractive young lady’. That phrase ‘a remarkably attractive young lady’ has more of the 21st century in it than the 18th. When Charlotte makes her ill-bred remark about Lady Denham’s late husbands, respectable, middle-aged Mrs Parker is said to be ‘cheered by her young friend’s jaunty manner, and only tittered while the two ladies were briefly united in their little amusement.’ A ‘titter’, defined as ‘a short, half suppressed laugh’ may have been appropriate here but it is a decidedly inelegant word which I would doubt Jane Austen would have used. Lady Denham’s poor relation, Clara, brought into her home as companion/slave is described thus:
Shades of Bing Crosby!
Of Sidney Parker and his interaction with our heroine, Ms Barrett writes
Reading this I was reminded how rarely, if ever, Jane Austen uses metaphor and I suggest that if she did it would be with more wit and to greater effect.
These few little gems have been selected at random. I think I have delighted the company enough and will not bore you with some of the lengthy, convoluted passages which the hopeful Ms Barrett considers will be an acceptable approximation of Jane Austen’s witty, elegant and above all, disciplined style. I could not agree less with Natalie Tyler, author of The Friendly Jane Austen who confesses herself ‘charmed by the wit, the romance, the stylishness of this completion of Jane Austen’s last fragment.’
21 June 2003