The Silence of Miss Lambe: Sanditon and Fictions of ‘Race’ in the Abolition Era

The Silence of Miss Lambe: Sanditon and Fictions of ‘Race’ in the Abolition Era

Eighteenth-Century Fiction
Volume 18, Issue 3 (Spring 2006)
pages 329-353

Sarah Salih, Professor of English
University of Toronto

Although it would be difficult to argue that Sanditon (1817) is “historical” in any immediately obvious sense, it is nonetheless clear that the social history of England is central to Jane Austen’s last, unfinished text. Critics appear to agree that the novel, which, as Warren Roberts points out, was written during a period of social turbulence in England, reflects anxieties about the shift from one socio-economic structure to another. Once a fishing village and agricultural community, Sanditon has been “perverted” into a resort, a “sandy town,” where the sea is an exploitable resource and invalidism is a social activity engaged in by characters who are “urban, rootless, irresponsible and self-indulgent.” As Tony Tanner puts it, “[Sanditon is] a little parable of change—supersession, supplanting, and substitution.” These are certainly accurate characterizations, and yet the majority of the novel’s commentators overlook what Edward Said would call its “geographical problematic,” the fact that the seaside resort is dependent on economic resources from outside—from other areas of England, and, it seems, from England’s Caribbean colonies. I am referring to Miss Lambe, Austen’s only “brown” character—so briefly invoked and so tantalizingly incomplete. Certainly, Miss Lambe does not take up much of Sanditon’s eleven and a half chapters, and as my title suggests, she never utters a word. All the same, the characters’ allusions to the “West India” contingent, along with Miss Lambe’s presence in the text, certainly warrant closer critical attention than they have hitherto received.

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