Sanditon, the new ITV adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, has to tread a risky path between not angering Janeites or irritating historians and being populist enough to hold its own in the Sunday evening 9pm slot (where it’s up against Peaky Blinders). Does it succeed as a drama, though? Historian Naomi Clifford reviews Sanditon for Historia.
Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sanditon is bookended with warnings.
“Be careful,” advises Charlotte Heywood’s father before she leaves to spend the summer in Sanditon with new-found friends the Parkers.
Charlotte (Rose Williams) is no fading flower. She’s a bit of a tomboy actually. She lies on her front and shoots game and thinks nothing of clambering up to help haul Mr and Mrs Parker out of their upturned carriage, but will she be able to cope when faced with the many hazards and intrigues of Sanditon?
This brand spanking new seaside resort is being developed by her host Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) whose business partner is the local grande dame Lady Denham (scene-stealing Anne Reid). Lady D speaks as she finds and promptly warns Charlotte off any thoughts she might be having about her superficially charming nephew. Sir Edward (Jack Fox), she states, “has to marry a fortune” — and Charlotte is not one.
To be fair, Edward doesn’t appear to be at all interested in marrying. He’s much more intent on fondling his half-sister Esther (Charlotte Spencer, hamming it up like the best pantomime villain, so there must be more to her than meets the eye) and getting his hands on Lady D’s fortune by flirting with Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky), who he assumes is lined up to be the heiress, and then destroying her reputation.
Wide-eyed Charlotte, out walking in the woods, accidentally glimpses these two engaged in what looks like a hand-job. As we know from Colin Firth’s wet shirt in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, Davies loves to ‘sex up’ the classics. In Sanditon he has three naked men dashing down the beach to the sea — decidedly not Austen, nor sexy. Sanditon, despite its light comic touches, has a harsher, dirtier edge, and these scenes are perhaps less for our titillation than to show us that the Regency was not as repressed as we might assume.
The historical adviser for the series is Hannah Greig, who also works on Poldark, and while some of the peripheral details have been derided online (music not written until a hundred years after Jane Austen laid down her pen and so on), I have no doubt that these were not in her brief, and I am not sure they matter too much anyway. Sexual blackmail and the relative freedoms of men and women are, however, absolutely on point for a Georgian drama.
Austen, probably suffering from Addison’s disease, abandoned her manuscript of The Brothers (renamed Sanditon) in April 1817. She died four months later. Her legacy, 12 chapters, is a bit of a slow burn but judging by the pace so far, Andrew Davies will be pushing things along smartly. The first episode ends with a grand ball attended by Sanditon’s latest visitors, including Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke), a mixed-race heiress from Antigua, who has left London and, it is said, an unsuitable romance in London.
She seems to be previously acquainted with both of Tom Parker’s unmarried brothers: the good-looking but glowering Sidney (Theo James) and the bibulous and hypochondriac Arthur (Turlough Convery). Sidney is not happy to see her, but Arthur is as keen as mustard. “Do be careful!” cries out the fourth Parker sibling, Diana (Alexandra Roach) as Arthur speeds over to ask Miss Lambe for the next dance.
Mrs Parker has already told Charlotte that, after a “bruising experience”, Sidney “is not inclined to think highly of our sex”; but the poor girl is utterly unprepared when, in response to her honestly given opinion of him, he tells her that she is not entitled to a view since she knows nothing and has no experience of the world. She has merely been “sitting in your father’s house with your piano and your embroidery” (he doesn’t know about the game-hunting, obviously). As she bites back tears, she may be thinking that she should have paid more attention to Papa’s words.
Is Sanditon faithful to Austen’s intentions? Yes, in a 21st-century way. Her main themes are knitted into the script: the tension between love and money when forging a marriage, the freedoms of men and the insights of women, the new order based on urban enterprise and investment rather than land. I regret that Mr Hollis’s chamber-horse, an indoor exercise machine mimicking the action of, yes, a horse, for use in bad weather (another Austen theme) has not yet made an appearance, but I live in hope.
Will I be watching Episode 2? Definitely. It’s the first TV Austen where I have absolutely no idea where we are heading and I need to find out what’s going on with mysterious Miss Lambe and what’s up with touchy old Sidney.
Naomi Clifford is the author of three non-fiction titles set in the Regency era: The Disappearance of Maria Glenn (2016), Women and the Gallows (2017) and The Murder of Mary Ashford (2018), all published by Pen and Sword. Find her at naomiclifford.com and on Twitter (@naomiclifford).
1: Sidney Parker, Charlotte Heywood, Miss Lambe, Lady Denham and Tom Parker
2: Clara Brereton, Esther Denham, Lady Denham and Edward Denham
3: Miss Lambe
4: Sidney Parker and Charlotte Heywood
All courtesy of ITV Pictures