Premiering Sunday, August 25 on ITV, Sanditon will be the first television series inspired by Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel.
Jane Austen fans in the UK have much to celebrate. Austen’s seaside Regency drama is being given the red-carpet treatment by the co-production team of Red Planet Pictures in the UK and MASTERPIECE PBS in the US. Adapting and continuing the eight-part series will be veteran period drama screenwriter Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Sense and Sensibility (2008)), and a cast of accomplished and emerging British actors will portray the lively and diverse characters that Austen established in her novel, with a few additions to the roister as well. The new series will air on eight consecutive Sundays at 9:00pm August 25 through October 13, 2019.
Inset of the first page of the manuscript that would later be titled Sanditon: “A Gentleman & Lady travelling from Tun-bridge towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings & E. Bourne being induced by Business to quit the high road, and were overturned in half rock, half sand toiling up its long ascent.” Via Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts
Sanditon was written in 1817 when Austen was seriously ill. She was only able to finish twelve chapters and about 24,000 words before her poor health prevented her from completing it. Four months later she would die on July 18, 1817, of what is generally believed to be Addison’s disease. The manuscript was passed down through family members until it was donated in 1930 to King’s College in Cambridge where it now resides. The fragment of the novel is classified as one of her minor works.
Image of a map of Hastings on the English coast, from A Guide to all the watering and sea-bathing places, with a description of the lakes, a sketch of a tour in Wales, and various itineraries, illustrated with maps and views (1815)
In comparison to Austen’s other popular novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, which have been previously adapted numerous times for television and movies, Sanditon has received little attention. Those familiar with her work will feel at home in the seaside world she created full of comical characterizations and jabs at society, while new readers will appreciate this fragment more after reading any of her other six major novels. Its exuberance is bracing and represents a new direction for Austen as a writer—moving from the focus of “three or four families in a country village,” to a whole community.
Set in the emerging seaside village of Sanditon on the Sussex coast we are introduced to a large cast of characters dominated by the two oligarchs of the community: Mr. Parker (Kris Marshall) a local landowner with grand designs of turning a fishing village into a fashionable watering-place offering the therapeutic and curative benefits of sea-bathing, and his partner Lady Denham (Anne Reid), the local great lady who has “a shrewd eye & self-satisfying air” and cares little about the community and only her pocketbook.
Rose Williams stars as Charlotte Heywood, a young woman visiting Sanditon and the sea for the first time.
The story unfolds from the perspective of Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), a young lady experiencing her first trip away from her family as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Parker. From the press release of the casting announcement last February, it appears that Davies has given Charlotte a modern twist:
Rose Williams will star as Charlotte. Excited by the promise of adventure that Sanditon offers, Charlotte is a young woman of enormous energy who builds a reputation as an integral part of the new town. Open and optimistic in spirit, she’s excited by the changes the nineteenth-century promises and she’s ready for a new life; she’s a truly modern Austen heroine. Confident in her opinions but unfamiliar with the rules of high society, Charlotte’s self-assurance is knocked when she meets Sidney. Will Sanditon give her somewhere, and someone, to love?
Sanditon is populated by a comical ensemble of residents and visitors who upon Charlotte’s first acquaintance are altogether different than they later appear. Lady Denham’s nephew Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox) is handsome, amiable and titled but is prone to long inflated speeches in the most pompous and affected style in an attempt to reinforce his own notion that he is a romantic character born to seduce women “quite in the line of Lovelaces.” (Lovelace refers to the villain Robert Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel Clarissa who rapes and ruins the young heroine.) He has designs upon Lady Denham’s companion Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky) who he shall either woo with affection or carry off. Clara is a poor relation of Lady Denham’s who is maneuvering to be her heir and in direct competition with Sir Edward for her favor.
Theo James as Sidney Parker, a bit of a rake and a rattle.
Mr. Parker has only three siblings in this version whom Charlotte is told are sad invalids, but after their arrival, talk a great deal about their maladies but exhibit little consequence of their afflictions. Diana (Alexandra Roach) is the elder and Arthur (Turlough Convery) is the younger of the siblings still at home. Here we see Austen at her comedic height characterizing the foibles of those who attach illness as an identity and hypochondria as their religion. The one bright ray of hope is Mr. Parker’s brother Sidney (Theo James) who we know of only through letters and descriptions by others in Austen’s version. From an advance press release this is Davies take:
Theo James plays Sidney, a man never the same from one moment to the next. Unpredictable, roguish and restless – seemingly never settling in one place for very long – self-made man Sidney finds his responsibilities to his family in Sanditon somewhat tiresome. And yet his cynicism masks a sensitive soul wounded by a broken heart that has never fully healed. In the company of Charlotte, Sidney must rediscover who he is and crucially, learn to trust again.
Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) and Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) become fast friends.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies has revealed that he used up Austen’s story in about the first thirty minutes of the first episode—so that leaves a wide-open stage for him to send Austen’s characters off in all directions. He has also added that nude sea-bathing has been brought forward, the story has been “sexed up” (oh my), and characters have been greatly expanded; one of which I am thrilled to see receive a bigger role. Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), a visitor to Sanditon who Austen described as a young half-mulatto (Austen’s words exactly) from the West Indies of large fortune in delicate health. It has also been disclosed that part of the storyline takes place in Jamaica, so one assumes there are flashbacks.
Anne Reid as Lady Denholm, the great lady of Sanditon.
And of course, the queen of the community is Lady Denholm (Anne Reid) who lauds over everyone a la Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice. She certainly knows the importance of an advantageous marriage having buried two husbands; her first was Mr. Hollis who left her a fortune, and the second was Sir Harry Denham of Denham Park who gave her a title. That kind upward mobility was greatly admired and envied in the Regency world.
Anne Reid will play the deliciously direct Lady Denham. Two husbands dead and gone, Lady Denham received money from the first and a title from the second and expects to be treated with a great deal of deference. Notoriously tight-fisted, she seems to delight in the power that she wields over the town, particularly those waiting to cash in from her death.
The spikey relationship between the “joyously impulsive, spirited and unconventional Charlotte” and “the humorous, charming (and slightly wild!) Sidney Parker” is the fuel that drives the plot. Second in line is the town of Sanditon which exposes her to “the intrigues and dalliances of a seaside town on the make, and the characters whose fortunes depend on its commercial success.” The promised twists and turns of the plot take the viewer from “the West Indies to the rotting alleys of London, exposes the hidden agendas of each character and sees Charlotte discover herself and ultimately find love.” Well then. My eyebrows are duly raised, Mr. Davies.
Davies is calling his creation a free adaptation. In a recent London Times interview he stated that he was “interested in the illicit thrill of the seaside and believes that the louche ambience of Sanditon is the ideal setting for this drama about Charlotte coming to realise that the world of money and power is often venal.” Along with the aforementioned nudity and sex scenes, and the wide-open territory of plot and character development available, I am all anticipation of a Regency romp exhibiting more than Austen could have expressed on the page but wholly true to the times. This new Jane Austen adaptation/continuation will also premiere in the US on MASTERPIECE Classic PBS on Sunday, January 12, 2020.