PBS Masterpiece Sanditon

Episodes Five and Six

It remains to be seen if Andrew Davies’ Sanditon (2019) will prove popular enough in the USA to justify a second season, but the extreme reactions to the series do not bode well for a continuation. On one end is the #sanditonsisterhood’s plea for a second season, whose hype for the series is indexed under #sanditonseason2, #SaveSanditon, and the compound proper noun, #Sidlotte, after the series protagonists Sidney Parker (Theo James) and Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams). A second season depends entirely on how it fares with American viewers, according to Davies and ITV, since its popularity in Britain was not enough to warrant a second season (Hallemann). On the other, is the Janeite who refuses to watch the series due to its marked divergence from Jane Austen’s last and incomplete novel, which is exemplified both in how Davies’ stylistic choices differ from the satirical tone of the 1817 original and in the series’ superficial engagement with Austen’s attention to questions of health and disease. My own feelings about Davies’ Sanditon have been “[altering] entirely within the space of a single [episode],” as Lord Babington might put it (Episode 6). Davies is open about his interest in diverging from the original so that the series could move past the first season. He argues that the novel was “a fresh departure” for Austen from her previous work, citing as examples the seaside setting and its male characters, who he describes as “businessmen,” “entrepreneurs,” “risk takers,” and ultimately “more like Americans [than Britons], really!” (O’Keefe). Davies himself seems keen on characterizing his team’s creative process as a venture when he recounts how they spurred each other on by asking, “‘Dare we do that?” Apparently, the answer was always “Yeah!” (Busby). Episodes 5 and 6 demonstrate that while some of these risks have merit, their uneven execution undermine the series’ cohesion at every turn. Indeed, our conflicting responses are a symptom of the series’ desire to satisfy all audiences: those who return to Davies’ period pieces in search of a new iteration of his phenomenal adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995) and those who are ready for an earnest fresh departure.

So what exactly have Davies and his team dared to do with Austen’s Sanditon (1817)? The series’ fans cite their willingness to foreground both the sensuality that many Janeites will agree underlies Austen’s courtship plots and, especially, the historical context of enslavement that the incomplete novel alludes to with its introduction of “the half mulatto, chilly and tender” Miss Lambe (Austen 158). It does the former with uneven success; the latter proves deeply problematic. Some have celebrated how Davies’ series has “sexed up” Austen (Busby). This holds true for key moments, such as Charlotte’s surprise encounter with a naked Sidney, an effective foreshadowing of the sexual awakening that begins, first, as she enters the brothel defying Sidney’s instructions, and develops during their popular dance scene (Episode 6). But, at its worst, the series undermines its romantic plot by entering soap opera territory through its tacky interpretation of Clara Brererton (Lily Sacofsky) and Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox), characters whose sexual tension and conspiracies belong in Days of Our Lives not in Sanditon. A glaring example of this is the awkward sex scene that follows the burning of Lady Denham’s (Anne Reid) will. More than entangled in a steamy sexual encounter, as the camera pans out, Clara and Edward appear as two siblings fighting over the remote control. To make matters worse, Edward’s underdeveloped feelings for his half-sister, Esther (Charlotte Spencer), undercut the series’ attempts to sexualize the Regency Era, while Fox’s lackluster acting clashes with Spencer’s own ability to sustain her character’s complexity.

Sidney Parker seabathing. PBS Masterpiece GIF.
Charlotte Heywood and Miss Georgiana Lambe. PBS Msterpiece. Source: Parade.

At its best, the series shows it can be thoughtful about both Austen’s incomplete novel and its historical context. For instance, even though Davies left behind the original text after the first episode, the series does remain connected to Austen’s depiction of the seaside resort’s fragile ecosystem by, for instance, representing the consequences of Tom Parker’s speculative project in Mr. Stringer’s fall and injury and Parker’s exploitation of his laborers. The same holds true for the series’ nod to Austen’s literary culture when Charlotte hides Otis’ letters in a copy of Mary Brunton’s Self-Control (1811). Brunton’s novel warns readers about the dangers to which young women are exposed when their authority figures are inadequate or absent. In episode 5, it becomes a motif that warns about the consequences of both Mrs. Griffith’s (Elizabeth Berrington) and Sidney Parker’s deficiencies as Georgiana’s guardians. In fact, their attention to historical context earned them some celebration on Twitter, as evinced in @FangirlJeanne’s thread explaining how Episode 2’s pineapple—an unequivocal colonialist trope—works effectively to critique Lady Denham’s callous commodification and exoticization of Georgiana Lambe. However, as episodes 5 and 6 paved the way for the first season’s resolution in episodes 7-8, the series proves unable to sustain one of its riskiest and most promising decisions: to entwine two courtship plots, one between Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) and Mr. Otis Molyneux (Jyuddah Jaymes) and one between Charlotte and Sidney. Indeed, the gains the series makes fall through when Georgiana Lambe is quite literally left behind as Charlotte and Sidney dance to the tune of a conventional romantic plot. Ultimately, and this holds true in episode 7, Georgiana and Otis’ relationship is an ancillary plot: through their rescue of Georgiana, Charlotte and Sidney fully come to know each other; as Georgiana’s heart is broken, Charlotte and Sidney fall in love.

Charlotte Heywood, Miss Georgiana Lambe and Otis Molyneux. PBS Masterpiece. Source: Parade.
The privileging of the conventional courtship plot seems inevitable given how Georgiana’s story line is embedded in Charlotte and Sidney’s romance. In fact, while Charlotte’s decision to act as a go-between for Georgiana and Otis is ostensibly informed by her affection for Georgiana and sincere desire to oppose Sidney’s alleged racism, it serves as the conduit for her unacknowledged desire for him. Charlotte derives as much pleasure from doing the right thing for Georgiana as she does from defying Sidney’s orders while doing so. This would not lead to speculation if, time and again, the depth of her interest in Georgiana and Otis’s romance were not thrown into question by how easily Charlotte forgets about Georgiana when she is with Sidney. When she gets caught up in the cricket game, she forgets about Georgiana’s plan to meet with Otis (Episode 5). She is intent on redeeming herself throughout the first half of episode 6: she leaves for London alone in a coach; exhorts Sidney to keep looking for Georgiana rather than giving up; and uses her intimate knowledge of Georgiana and Otis’ relationship to rescue her friend just in time. However, in the sequence of events that leads to Charlotte and Sidney’s dance, the gravity of Miss Lambe’s temporary enslavement is glossed over in the service of the lead characters and their mounting sexual tension.
Charlotte’s forgetfulness is compounded by the lightness with which the series approaches such atrocious events as Georgiana’s sale to Mr. Howard (Jack Brady). To be sure, the series is keen on making an important point through this episode, which is that the only difference between Georgiana and the millions of enslaved humans who were sold to British plantation owners is that she is an heiress. This point is also made in an earlier scene when Georgiana attempts to take a coach to London without being able to pay for it in the moment, and she faces the derision of the coachman and onlookers. Unaware of her status, they laugh at her and push her around. Despite her enormous wealth, Georgiana is the most vulnerable character of the story. But for viewers, her dehumanization at the hands of Mr. Howard, who in the same breath commends her on her “youthful exotic charm” and threatens to “break” her like a horse, there is no room to reflect on the implications of her sale. In fact, the horror of her likely rape upon arrival in Scotland is dissipated in seconds when, as Sidney rescues her from Mr. Howard’s carriage, she pushes her captor off declaring: “I am nobody’s property!” (Episode 6).

By contrast, in the heated exchanges that transpire between Charlotte and Sidney in different carriage rides, the camera’s position at eye-level creates an effect of intimacy that leads viewers to connect more deeply with these characters than they are ever allowed to do with Georgiana and Otis. In these scenes, Charlotte finally overcomes her immaturity, about which Sidney berates her repeatedly by pointing out her tendency to make assumptions. She witnesses Sidney’s hard exterior soften, first, when he denies any involvement with slavery, stating that he “despis[es] the slave trade” and alleging that he had “long since [given up] the sugar trade.” The unveiling of Sidney’s sensibilities continues when, in response to Charlotte’s accusation that he is “insensible of feeling,” he rejoins: “How much easier my life would have been if I were” (Episode 6). These exchanges culminate in the aftermath of Georgiana’s abduction when Charlotte realizes Sidney has paid off Otis’ debts, an undeniable allusion to Mr. Darcy’s actions with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice (1813). When she enquires about his decision to do so, Sidney replies that “a good man shouldn’t be condemned for one terrible mistake,” echoing Charlotte’s earlier plea that he forgive Otis for inadvertently placing Georgiana in danger (Episode 6).

Charlotte and Sidney's Dance at the Masque. PBS Masterpiece. Source: Parade.
As things stand by the end of these episodes, Georgiana and Otis’ courtship plot is backgrounded. In other words, it is the backdrop for Charlotte and Sidney’s romance. In fact, as Charlotte descends the staircase to meet Sidney and Tom Parker on their way to the masque, it is all too easy to forget that Georgiana resides with them. It is not until Charlotte expresses half-heartedly that she feels “dreadful for leaving Georgiana” that we realize she has once again left her behind, and this time in the aftermath of her near enslavement. The explanation for such behavior, which contradicts her professed interests in Georgiana’s wellbeing, might reside in Charlotte’s own recollection of Georgiana’s rescue when she meets the mysterious Lady Susan (a loose allusion to Austen’s juvenalia). When Lady Susan remarks on Charlotte’s befuddled appearance, Charlotte recounts her friend’s experience as if she were summarizing the plot of a bad adventure novel. From there she moves to her own feelings for Sidney, which Lady Susan is keen to entertain. And as the episode’s final close-up of the protagonist’s disheartened expression suggests, it is Charlotte’s feelings alone that deserve the viewer’s full attention.

In sum, the series seems unable to carry the weight of its risky decisions. In this regard, it is inconsistent with its own aspirations but consistent with the era it portrays: like many works of the early nineteenth century, Davies’ Sanditon denounces the cruelties of racism and the slave trade through a story that champions the white savior. Ultimately, the real risk might have involved giving Georgiana a fulfilling courtship plot and–dare we do that?—leaving Charlotte behind instead. #RememberGeorgiana 

Miss Georgiana Lambe Painting. PBS Masterpiece. Source: Parade.

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