Andrew Davies’s 2019 television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sanditon (1925) promised to be a departure from the text: “there isn’t much of ‘Sanditon,’ a new eight-part Austen adaptation arriving Sunday on PBS’s ‘Masterpiece,’ that was taken directly from the author’s writings” (Suclas, NYTimes). The lack of Austen’s Sanditon in PBS’s Sanditon is abundantly clear in the first two episodes of the series. The first episode quickly diverges from the original plot; and while the viewer will find similarities between the two, the Twitter backlash facing the series becomes increasingly understandable with each episode. In an article for The New York Times, Davies revealed, “‘It’s not a secret that we were hoping to get more than one series…We are very keen on our main characters and wanted to give them more mileage. But yes, there was rage and frustration on Twitter’” (Suclas, NYTimes). What Davies describes as “keenness” in the characters forms the cornerstone of my review of episodes one and two. The adaption takes on the patriarchal traditions of the Regency era through either its erasure or vilification of older female characters. The focus on the younger female characters results in a one-sided depiction of Regency life, particularly disappointing for an adaptation that was specifically designed to move beyond the text of Sanditon. In particular, the three female characters of Mrs. Parker (Kate Ashfield), Diana Parker (Alexandra Roach), and Lady Denham (Anne Reid) are stereotyped as models of potential femininity for the young women in Sanditon and provide the moral guidance for the community: Mrs. Parker, already married, acts as the dutiful wife; Diana Parker, a spinster, is the family busybody and care-taker; and Lady Denham, a cranky widow, is obsessed with money. All serve as an example for the young women, each shows a version of what their future might hold.
Mrs. Parker plays a steadying force to Mr. Parker’s (Kris Marshall) more energetic nature in the text of Sanditon, and it is no different in the series. Throughout episodes one and two she attempts to lure him to the table for meals and constantly reassures him that his business venture will be successful; all this happens with a baby in her lap or a child nearby. In what appears to be an overwhelming lifestyle, she rarely complains, only once telling Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) that she feels that Sanditon is Mr. Parker’s second wife with whom she has to compete (“Episode One”).
This almost rueful regret is a small echo of a compelling narrative from the text that Davies does not include in the series. In the text, the Parkers’s approach into Sanditon is marked by Mrs. Parker’s regret over their move into a larger house. She remarks, “‘But you know’ (still looking back) ‘one loves to look at an old friend, at a place where one has been happy’” (Austen, 170). The loss of this narrative challenge to Mr. Parker, and the dwindling appearance of Mrs. Parker in the episodes results in a character who becomes a stereotype of the happily married woman: the woman who did what was expected and now serves as a kind of model for the young women of Sanditon.
An alternative model of the dutiful woman, Diana Parker is the spinster aunt, who also serves as the family care-taker. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Diana Parker is that she is alone, instead of being accompanied by her sister, Susan Parker. Davies has chosen to present Diana as a singular female character. She does not have the female support system that Austen gives her, begging the question: why wasn’t Susan included? In the text Diana is described as “evidently chief of the family; principal mover and actor” (Austen, 199). This is despite the incredible poor health she describes. In fact, Charlotte Heywood finds it questionable: “it was impossible for Charlotte not to suspect a good deal of fancy in such an extraordinary state of health” (Austen, 198). This claim of ill health, while presenting as well, is echoed in the series. Diana and Arthur Parker (Turlough Convery) join the Sanditon Parkers on their cliff walk despite “being near death’s door” (“Episode One”). As well, Diana takes great care of Arthur in the series. She constantly attends to his health and advises him on behavior (“Episode Two”). While this is common behavior for any sibling, it becomes a particularly gendered, almost maternal role, in the series.
Diana Parker, now past the marrying age, has become the spinster aunt who is destined for a life of caring for the rest of her family. As part of her role in caring for the family, she brings young women to Sanditon, in effect facilitating the marriage market. Although she is a humorous character for those of us watching the series, for girls like Charlotte Heywood and Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky) she would be a warning. This could be their future if they are unable to find a husband.
The vilification of older female characters is focused on Lady Denham. In the text of Sanditon, Mr. Parker states, “‘Every neighbourhood should have a great lady.—The great lady of Sanditon, was Lady Denham” (Austen 165). Lady Denham in both the text and the series is described as a woman who is richer than she is educated and is valued more for her wealth than her personality. It is no wonder then that she acts out the stereotype of the cranky old lady. But is she really just a cranky old lady? In the text, Lady Denham exclaims to Charlotte Heywood, “‘Ah! young ladies that have no money are very much to be pitied!’” (Austen 188). Yes, this is a crass comment that breaks with many codes of conduct, but it is also a comment that recognizes the perilous position unmarried women are in. Lady Denham, while a difficult character may be more on the side of the young ladies than viewers initially realize.
“Episode Two” of the series shines the spotlight directly on Lady Denham, and her behavior. She hosts a luncheon to honor Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke) and in the process engineers an incredibly racially charged situation. She point-blank asks Miss Lambe, “was not your mother a slave?” (“Episode Two”). This conversation leads to a direct comparison between marriage and slavery. Viewers today might balk at this comparison, but in a time when a woman, and her assets, became her husband’s property upon marriage this comparison becomes more understandable. In the Regency era, women passed from being their father’s property to being their husband’s, without ever owning their own money. If unmarried they were unable to aspire to a fully respectable status unless incredibly wealthy (like Lady Denham) or like Austen, under the guardianship of a rich relative. Miss Lambe, in defense of both her mother and her desire not to marry responds, “being used to a thing and liking it are not the same thing” (“Episode Two”). When asked why she talked to Miss Lambe that way, Lady Dehham says she just likes to poke and tease (“Episode Two”). Fair enough, some people enjoy difficult conversations. Lady Denham on the other hand pushes the envelope further than is allowed in polite company. And while this is a comparison that makes modern viewers uncomfortable, it was very common at the time. In fact, both Mary Wollstonecraft and Maria Edgeworth, Austen’s contemporaries, make this comparison between slavery and marriage. This conversation challenges the assumptions viewers have about Lady Denham, she takes the opportunity to highlight the issue of women’s rights in a very public, albeit racially insensitive way, to force the young ladies to think. Lady Denham is not as equally stereotyped as the other female characters; her crankiness may be stereotypical, but she plays a critical role in the text and the series. She carries the role of the Austen heroine who points a finger at society’s issues through biting yet witty commentary.
PBS’s Sanditon promised to diverge from Jane Austen’s Sanditon and Episodes One and Two did not disappoint. Although they bore a similarity to other Austen adaptations, the plot quickly moved beyond the text. What concerns me the most about this adaptation is the treatment of the female characters not on the marriage market: Mrs. Parker, already married, Diana Parker, a spinster, Lady Denham, a widow. All have moved beyond the traditional focus of an Austen novel and as such are being faced with either erasure or vilification by Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Sanditon. It ignores the perspective of older women to focus on the marriageable young women, not unlike the patriarchal traditions of the Regency. As Mr. Heywood (Adrian Rawlins) warned Charlotte before she joined the Parkers on the journey to Sanditon, conduct and behavior in resort towns are not always held to the same standard as the rest of society. The older female characters, whether viewers like them or not, are expected to function as the moral gatekeepers of society and as we watch the rest of the series, I ask readers to look for the storylines that involve Mrs. Parker, Diana Parker, and Lady Denham: what does it mean to characterize them this way? Why do we, as viewers, continue to have a difficult time imaging female characters beyond the courtship plot?
Austen, Jane and Margaret Drabble. Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. London: Penguin Books, 2003, Print.
“Episode One.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 12 Jan. 2020.
“Episode Two.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 12 Jan. 2020.
Sulcas, Roslyn. “PBS’s Sexy ‘Sanditon’ Finishes What Jane Austen Started.’ The New York Times, 8 Jan. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/08/arts/television/sanditon-jane-austen-pbs.html.