Sanditon and the Missing Essence of Jane

SPOILERS:

I know I’m very late to the party, but I just got the chance to finally catch up with the recent miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon.

I went into it optimistic that I would enjoy it. Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s film adaptation of Lady Susan, another unfinished novel by Austen, is magnificent (I reviewed it a few years ago here). There are as many variations of her novels as stars in the sky, it seems sometimes, and many of them are really good.

Sanditon is a disappointing flop.

I’m not a purist who needs Austen adaptations to be completely faithful to the source or even to everything we expect from her work. The film Clueless is one of my favorite adaptations of her novels. Its modernity dictated that it had to drop the whole “marriage as a road to respectability” theme that runs through her works.

But I need the ESSENCE of Jane.

Cluless still found ways to keep the essence of her work. This miniseries mostly fails in that regard.

Jane Austen finished only about twelve chapters of Sanditon before she became too ill to continue and died soon after. Even so, she managed to sketch a strong premise and a cast of vibrant characters in those few chapters. It’s no wonder someone was going to eventually want to take those bare bones and try to flesh them out.

The story centers on a young woman named Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) the daughter of a respectable but not wealthy gentleman farmer. A couple named Tom and Mary Parker (Kris Marshall and Kate Ashfield) are in a coach accident near her home. Her family takes them in and cares for them until Mr. Parker recovers from a sprained foot. A kindly couple, they issue an invitation to Charlotte to stay with them in Sanditon, an up-and-coming seaside resort—or, at least, it is Mr. Parker’s ambition that it become one for the fashionable set.

Mr. Parker is dependent on the patronage of Lady Denham (Anne Reid) to help him make these dreams come true. Lady Denham has a nephew Edward (Jack Fox) and niece Esther (Charlotte Spencer) who are living in genteel poverty while they await an expected inheritance from their aunt. Lady Denham has another niece Clara (Lily Sacofsky) as her companion. Edward and Esther see her as a rival for their inheritance and are bent on ruining her reputation to get her out of the way.

Mr. Parker’s brother Sidney (Theo James) arrives in town with an heiress who is his ward. Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke) is a biracial woman who was recognized by her slave-owning father before his death. She is the target of fortune hunters, including Edward Denham, who is spurred on by Lady Denham to win her hand and her money.

All this sounds very Austenesque and a set-up for another one of her engrossing tales of the symbiotic relationship between marriage and money in her world. The miniseries just never lives up to its promising premise.

There is a lot of pearl-clutching in reviews of the series because some deemed it too “racy.” Edward and Esther are stepsiblings who are in love with each other and there is obvious sexual heat between them. Clara, in a bid to protect herself, manipulates Edward sexually. And the men (horrors!) swim naked in the ocean, giving the audience some bare butt shots.

This is not the problem. Jane Austen’s books are LOADED with sex. Maybe not so obviously, but it runs through the text and subtext of every single one of them. Illicit sex is a feature, not a bug, of her stories.

I think the series falls so flat because it skims over something that is a feature of her stories. This is not set in 1990s Hollywood like Clueless, which could drop this feature without losing the essence of the story. This is explicitly set in Austen’s own time and world.

While the Edward/Esther/Clara/Miss Lambe subplot sketches out the important link between fortune and marriage, they basically skip over it in the major love story between Charlotte and Sidney Parker. In fact, Esther’s story is surprisingly the only plot thread that resolves itself in an Austenesque and satisfying way.

Charlotte is by no means a catch. Her situation is probably similar to that of the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen’s in real life. Her likely lack of a dowry would mean that she would not be seen as a desirable match by most wealthy families. (At least Lady Denham voices this very issue.) Even though the Parkers are astonishingly kind to Charlotte, one has to wonder if they would have been so open to Charlotte as a future member of their family, especially since money—the lack of it—is such an important element of the story. We don’t get even a hint of this until the very end.

The discussions of eligibility of so many of Austen’s heroines: Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, Catherine Moreland, as well as secondary characters such as Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith, take up so much space in her novels it seems something vital is missing from this story.

Even more to the point, they make a character mentioned by Austen in passing a possible suitor for Charlotte. A builder named Mr. Stringer (Leo Suter) he is a lovely and ambitious young man but would be a disastrous match for her in a financial sense. It astonished me how, again, this is not explicitly brought up.

Then there is the Georgiana Lambe subplot, which is almost criminally mishandled. They introduce a lover for her, Otis Molyneux (Jyuddah Jaymes), a freed Black man working to end slavery all over the world. I immediately became captivated by their love story. How refreshing it was to see a romance between two Black people in an historical story! The actors have amazing chemistry. I was invested. I wanted to see them get a happy ending.

I should have seen the red flags.

Charlotte becomes angry with Sidney because he does everything he can to hobble Georgiana and Otis’ relationship. In a romance, misunderstanding is often the basis of conflict between the hero and heroine. It turns out Otis is a gambler whose debts lead to Georgiana being kidnapped by a fortune hunter and almost forced into marriage. Of course, Sidney was right all along (and rescues her). Of course, this causes Charlotte to begin to reassess her feelings about Sidney. Then Georgiana basically becomes irrelevant and her story just fizzles out. (Similarly, the Clara subplot also strangely fizzles out.)

Bleh. What a missed opportunity. Not to mention that even though they attempt not to ignore the institution of slavery and how many rich people in Austen’s time benefited from it, they go out of their way to absolve Sidney of blame. The Georgiana and Otis story is nothing more than a plot device to advance the love story of the white characters.

I like Theo James as much as the next person, but found myself loathing his character, for that and many other reasons. Even accounting for the financial issue, I would have preferred Mr. Stringer as Charlotte’s love interest. Sidney is only mentioned through a letter in Austen’s novel fragment. Obviously, the writers thought they would out-Darcy Darcy by making Sidney brooding, cold, and flat-out rude to the heroine.

The fact that readers/viewers fall in love with Darcy before Elizabeth does is testament to Jane Austen’s genius. The writers here do not share Austen’s genius for making us see the man beneath the outer mask. Sidney is just a jerk until the plot calls for him to stop being a jerk.

Then there’s the ending. Again, I’m not one who demands a happy ending every time. But I can’t think of one Austen story that does not resolve its relationships. Here, everything is left totally up in the air.

The excuse given in interviews by the writers is that they are hoping to be greenlit for another season. As of this writing, this still has not happened and it seems unlikely it will ever happen.

I think Sanditon failed in the same way the final two seasons of Game of Thrones failed—an inability to successfully build on an unfinished story. It also fails in recognizing what it was Jane Austen did best: a withering observation of her society and characters, even her heroes and heroines. That never really happens here.

Yes, it’s nice to look at. Yes, the acting is uniformly good. (Anne Reid is a total hoot as Lady Denham, who plays her as a Lady Catherine de Bourgh on steroids.) The lead actors have a strong chemistry. It isn’t a total waste of time.

But the essence. I really missed the essence.

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