From The New Yorker:
On March 18, 1817, Jane Austen stopped writing a book. We know the date because she wrote it at the end of the manuscript, in her slanting hand. She had done the same at the beginning of the manuscript, on January 27th of that year. In the seven weeks in between, she had completed eleven chapters and slightly more than nine pages of a twelfth—some twenty-three thousand five hundred words. The final sentence in the manuscript runs as follows: “Poor Mr. Hollis!—It was impossible not to feel him hardly used; to be obliged to stand back in his own House and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir H. D.” This is a joke. Mr. Hollis and Sir Harry Denham are dead, and it is their respective portraits that contend for social eminence in the sitting room of Lady Denham, the woman who married and buried them both. Exactly four months after writing that line, Jane Austen died, unmarried, at the age of forty-one. Her position, unlike theirs, remains secure.
Austen was the seventh child of a country rector. The family was well connected but not wealthy. Of her six mature novels, four were published in her lifetime, and none bore her name on the title page. The one she left dangling is known as “Sanditon,” although she assigned it no title. Nor did her beloved sister Cassandra, when she copied the manuscript, long after Jane’s demise. A nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, refers to it simply as “the last Work,” in “A Memoir of Jane Austen” (1871)—still the first port of call for biographers, despite its erasure of anything that might evoke the impious, the unsavory, or the quarrelsome. “Her sweetness of temper never failed,” he writes. Never? A week after “Sanditon” came to a halt, Austen wrote, in a letter, “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” That note of exasperation is worth attending to, as we approach the bicentenary of Austen’s death, this summer. The hoopla will be fervent, among the faithful, and both the life and the works will doubtless be aired afresh on our behalf. In part, however, the shape of that life is defined by its winding down, and by the book—an unsweet and unlikely one, still too little known—that sprang from her final efforts.
. . . .
Something new is afoot at the start of “Sanditon.” Austen is matchless in her openings, but none of them sound quite as eventful as this:
A gentleman and lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and East Bourne, being induced by business to quit the high road, and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent—half rock, half sand.
Overturned! Not until Chapter 12 of “Persuasion,” the last novel that Austen completed, do we come upon any such impact—Louisa Musgrove, tumbling and hitting her head. Here we are, however, greeted at once by a toil and a smash. In the manuscript, the phrase “half rock, half sand” has been added as an afterthought, and, as we read on, that geological blend—the reliably hard and secure compounded with the dangerously shifting—takes on the texture of a premonition.
Link to the rest at The New Yorker