Although PBS’ Sanditon (2019) has made many departures from the original, incomplete text, the series itself reflects an interest in patriarchal structures inherent to the original text and all of Austen’s published work. As Madeline’s review argues, the older women in Sanditon, while being either idealized or vilified, model potential paths for young women who depend upon their success in the marriage market and their resulting position of operation in a patriarchal society. However, another interesting and related facet of female agency within a patriarchal framework is explored in the relationships of Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) with Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke) and Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky) with Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer). Throughout the course of “Episode Three” and “Episode Four” the dynamics between the two sets of young women develop around situations where one woman attempts to monitor and regulate the other woman’s behavior with regards to men to protect them and facilitate their success in a patriarchal system. Thus, the series does not simply explore how older women might provide examples for their juniors or regulate their behavior, but also how young women might themselves police each other, all while exploring important topics like racism or abuse in the context of their interactions. The pivotal exchanges between the pairs of young women in these episodes both indicate how deeply internalized patriarchal realities such as the materiality of chastity and importance of propriety would have been at the time, as well as showcase the efficacy of sisterly advocacy when used to navigate the system collaboratively.
Miss Lambe’s narrative arch provides perhaps the clearest evidence of the strict regulation of young women’s behavior as she is constantly supervised. This is not only due to her conspicuous identity as a black woman in a predominantly white 19th-century seaside town, but in large part as a result of the sheer size of her dowry which Lady Denham (Anne Reid) connives to secure for Edward Denham (Jack Fox) by attempting to broker an engagement at a torturous dinner party when Miss Lambe was treated as an exotic spectacle (“Episode Two”). Miss Lambe’s behavior is monitored by her chaperone Mrs. Griffiths (Elizabeth Berrington), her guardian Sidney Parker (Theo James), and crucially, as she later discovers, even by her new friend Charlotte. A scene early in “Episode Three” reflects this when Miss Lambe and two other young charges of Mrs. Griffiths are seen painting while the pastor Mr. Hankins (Kevin Eldon) lectures on the fall of Eden and implicitly conflates Eve’s choice to eat the apple with sexual sin: “Young women sadly often find it very hard to resist temptation.” But Miss Lambe challenges this by replying “And what’s so bad about eating an apple?” before revealing a painting deemed indecent which elicits a stunned expression from the pastor, peels of laughter from the other young women, and an initial laugh from their guardian before she instructs the other young girls to look away while she covers the presumably “crude” painting (we can only guess at what was painted ourselves). This instance evidences the policing of female behavior by older women and men, but Charlotte’s role later as she chaperones Miss Lambe with her would-be fiance Otis Molyneux (Jyuddah Jaymes) on their illicit picnic demonstrates how enforcement of the patriarchy might occur between young women as peers.
Sidney solicits Charlotte’s help in watching Miss Lambe before he leaves for London to attend to business by saying, “I do believe you’re in a better position than almost anyone. Would you keep an eye on Georgiana for me? See that she is kept out of mischief” (“Episode Three”). This exchange becomes relevant when Charlotte and Lambe steal away by themselves under the pretense of being chaperoned by the Parkers, and then Charlotte discovers that this was Miss Lambe’s means of being reunited with Otis, her forbidden romantic interest. Upon her shocking introduction to Otis and being informed of the would-be couple’s plan to head into the woods alone, Charlotte interrupts: “I’m sorry but I simply cannot abandon Georgiana… Forgive me sir but we’ve only just met. All I know is that you’re forbidden from seeing each other and I gave my word that I would keep an eye on Georgiana” (“Episode Four”). Miss Lambe balks at this and Charlotte’s successive admission that she has been instructed to watch her by Sidney. However, Charlotte follows the couple into the woods.
Yet, it is evident that Charlotte does not simply continue to watch Miss Lambe with her suitor to comply with Sidney’s instructions but out of a sense of concern and care for Miss Lambe: Charlotte was unfamiliar with Otis, who she had only just met and recognized the threat that time in private with any man could pose to Miss Lambe. Even if she were not materially “compromised,” the perceived implications from anyone who might discover a woman had been alone in the woods could cause social castigation for unchastity. Indeed, after all having spent the afternoon together, Charlotte offers to guide them by a “back route… where there is far less chance of being discovered” so that the couple may walk back into Sanditon together without being seen and claims that she can’t see why Sidney would object to Otis (“Episode Four”). Miss Lambe insinuates that it was on the basis of race, as Otis is black and was formerly enslaved, and also that Sidney has a connection to the slave trade which leaves both the audience and Charlotte in doubt of Sidney’s character.
This suggestion continues the series’ ongoing exploration of another set of Regency power structures as it includes criticism of the nineteenth-century slave trade, which was so often silenced at the time and continues to remian unadressed today. In response to this information, after they are greeted back in Sanditon by Mrs. Griffiths, Mr. Hankins, and Sidney Parker, Charlotte advocates for Miss Lambe to Sidney Parker telling him that “despite [his] professed concern [he cares] nothing for her happiness,” as well as pointing out his possible racism towards Otis and the fact that his “fortune is tainted with the stain of slavery” (“Episode Four”). In addition to addressing the pervasiveness of slavery in the period, this is further confirmation that Charlotte monitors Miss Lambe out of concern with her well-being, which would entail not only her happiness but her propriety. This is especially true if we consider the antagonistic nature of Charlotte and Sidney’s relationship, as it is clear she has no issue with defying him. That said, it is important to note that Charlotte is able to disagree with Sidney even despite the fact that he is older than her and a man, as he is not her guardian or relation. By contrast, as his ward, Miss Lambe has less ability to defy him, which is what necessitates Charlotte’s advocacy for Miss Lambe.
While Charlotte’s concern and care for Miss Lambe is significant, it is perhaps less impactful than the shifting dynamic of Clara and Esther in this section of the series. Clara’s empathetic move to guide Esther’s behavior in relationship to Edward after witnessing an intimate embrace between the two is not inspired by friendship but instead overrides their overarching competition with each other. While Esther and Clara’s relationship has been overwhelmingly antagonistic given their competition for the favor and fortune of their mutual relative Lady Denham, the revelation of Esther’s love for her brother seems to have elicited empathy from Clara-although, granted, in addition to some pointed comments initially. With the knowledge that this may be preventing Esther from marriage to another man and the securement of her own future, Clara approaches Esther who has gone to the woods to collect her thoughts after a tense exchange between the two at Lady Denham’s piano-forte. While Clara does initially approach Esther quite venomously by asking “does he undress you at the day’s end as well?”, her demeanor softens after Esther bristles at this and Clara empathizes by saying “men can be so artful in their persuasion, can they not? And it is so much harder to resist when you are sleeping under the same roof” (“Episode Four”). Clara then confides in Esther that she had a coercive relationship with her uncle- an abusive dynamic which Clara had alluded to earlier when Esther shamed her for giving a handjob to Edward to avoid fully having sex with him and thus losing her virginity (“Episode Two”). Esther, clearly very agitated, responds that the two situations are not equivalent, but Clara heatedly raises the point that they are legally brother and sister so it would not be regarded as acceptable by society.
Clara offers Esther advice claiming that she “know[s] how this story ends” and that Esther should“listen to [their] aunt” and find herself “a wealthy husband now while [she] still can” as there will be no “happy future” with her step-brother (“Episode Four”). It appears that Clara is truly speaking from a place of empathy or “pity,” as she states, as both women in this scene are emotionally unrestrained which contrasts with their usual clipped, vicious repartee. Clara clearly recognizes the threat that Edward represents to Esther’s ability to make a good, proper marriage match and thus succeed in their patriarchal society. In addition, having witnessed quite an intimate moment between the step-siblings, Clara also advises Esther of the danger in this, as if she were to go further with Edward- or any man- than the bounds of propriety dictated, she may be ruined. Thus, despite their enmity over the pursuit of Lady Denham’s fortune, Clara’s recognition of Esther’s precarious situation and knowledge of the patriarchal system they both navigate appears to have overwritten that competition- if only for a moment.
All that said, it is unfortunate that complexity should be limited to young female characters in Sanditon so far, as, while the relationships between the younger women are compelling and dynamic, the older female figures seem to be largely objectified, flat characters thus far in the series. The objectification of female characters is certainly not a unique occurrence in literature or film, but given the diversity of Austen fans- in race, age, and experiences- I wonder how a series which has made moves to broach such nuanced topics as race and sexual abuse would lack interest in exploring the perspectives of older female characters who are also often marginalized. This seems to demonstrate a lack of awareness of their audience. That criticism aside, the show does certainly live up to what an Austen fan might expect in terms of female solidarity before the patriarchy as evidenced most obviously in the relationship between Charlotte and Miss Lambe, but also with Clara and Esther. Going forward, I am very interested to watch how these characters may navigate the patriarchy collaboratively and as peers in future episodes, as well as to see how the series continues to explore enslavement and the slave trade in the period.
“Episode Three.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 19 Jan. 2020.
“Episode Four.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 26 Jan. 2020.