Gregory Tate, “Austen’s Literary Alembic: Sanditon, Medicine, and the Science of the Novel” (pp. 336–362)

This essay examines the representation of science in Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. It argues that this text, written in the months before Austen’s death in 1817, points to a development in her understanding of the novel, one that associates the form with the emerging scientific disciplines of the early nineteenth century through its emphasis on empirical objectivity and professional expertise. These traits are exemplified in the medical profession, which is central to Sanditon’s plot. Austen’s text presents a range of different types of medical knowledge and practice, and it celebrates professional medical advice as a safe middle ground between the commercial exploitation of quackery and the uninformed subjectivism of hypochondria. Similar issues are at stake in the text’s considerations of the literary marketplace: while acknowledging some of the problems involved in the growing commodification of the novel, Sanditon also satirizes the undisciplined reading habits of careless readers, and it promotes a view of the novel as an objective and professional articulation of knowledge. Sanditon’s advocacy of professional objectivity is conveyed in its narrative stance as well as its plot: the text focuses not on the subjectivity of a single protagonist but on the objective observation and experimental comparison of the interactions between a number of characters and between those characters and their environment. The essay concludes that the methodologies of science, as they were practiced within the medical profession, played a significant part in Austen’s understanding of the profession of writing at the end of her career.

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