PBS Masterpiece Sanditon

Vial Treatment: Gaslighting and Sisterhood in Sanditon

Gaslighting is the through line and ultimate source of tension in season two of Sanditon. This psychological manipulation is present in Captain Lennox’s abuse of Mr. Parker’s trust and the financial entrapment that threatens to sap Sanditon dry, one more in a series of towns he has plundered and left. It occurs in the final episode where Lennox attempts to manipulate Colbourne into feeling a disproportionate amount of guilt for his marriage with Lucy before her affair with Lennox. But the largest perpetrator in the series–to the degree that even Lennox condemns him as a “disgrace”–is, unsurprisingly, Edward Denham.

The prevalence of this theme throughout the second season comes at a ripe time in online discourse around the topic of “gaslighting.” It is helpful as a clear representation of not only how it can occur between all manner of people and gender dynamics, but also of its history as a manipulative strategy that victimizes women specifically. Most simply, gaslighting constitutes the systematic devaluing of a person’s reality in order to convince them that they are insane as a means of exerting control over them. The term itself originated from the screen in the 1944 film Gaslight. Paula, the heroine, is romanced by Gregory who becomes her husband and then proceeds to manipulate her into thinking she is mad so that he can have her committed and steal her jewels. Esther’s poisoning and hysteria diagnosis and Edward’s cognizant abuse of the trope of the “hysterical woman” to silence her speaks to the centuries’ long tradition of devaluing female experience or perspective by dehumanizing them, and labeling them “hysterical,” or “crazy.” As detailed by the Oxford English Dictionary, while the original definition of “hysteria” from the 18th century pertained to a “physical disorder of women” stemming from the uterus, the cultural and “medical” understanding of it had shifted to a more holistic (and neurological) “disorder” by 1827. Then the physician Marshall Hall defined it as affecting “…all the several [systems] which constitute the animal frame,—the organs of animal and of organic life; the different sets of muscles..; the functions of the head, the heart, the stomach,” (OED). The continuity between the definitions is that the term “hysteria” was leveled near exclusively at women. Given its setting in the late 1810s, in Sanditon, Esther’s treatment is undoubtedly informed by a context where the concept of hysteria was very much in the zeitgeist.

The word has more immediate relevance in history as well as other dialectic afterlives in current discourse, too. You need only look at the history of weaponized “hysteria” diagnosis up into the 1960s or the more modern trope of the “crazy ex-girlfriend” which is often in actuality a woman who is retaliating against male abuse only to be castigated for an account of male behavior that the man then denies. Although the sick “reward” of gaslighting could simply be power for a manipulator, much like in Gregory’s case, there is a financial incentive for Edward’s abuse of Esther as well. The series’ recurring villain hopes to solidify his place in the Denham succession in union with Clara and their son and to disenfranchise Esther by having her committed due to “hysteria.” Esther’s poignant descent into “madness” throughout the series is of course manufactured by the laudanum Edward has replaced her fertility tincture with in a particularly cruel move to a woman already grappling with trouble conceiving. In addition to drugging her, Edward makes routine references to her insanity and also steals her husband’s correspondence to further isolate his victim and to make her question her belief in her own spouse’s affection.

Esther is initially resistant to Edward’s attempts to destroy and discredit her as seen in an exchange between them in the drawing room with Lady Denham and Clara in episode five. When Esther worries aloud about the correspondence, Edward sharply chimes in that “Babington is preoccupied with his business affairs. I cannot believe it is anything more than that. It’s highly unlikely he would have been led astray.” Edward gives false comfort to Esther but then implicates an affair to plant yet another seed of doubt in her mind. Esther for her part contests by exclaiming “He’s not you, Edward!” and adds with a sort of foreboding foreknowing that “There’ll be a good reason for his silence.” The reason being, of course, that Edward has been stealing all of her husband’s letters to convince her that her husband does not love her and to isolate her. This is coupled with other remarks and false pretenses of caring for her such as during the ball where Esther is heavily drugged and causes a scene as a result. Counterfeiting concern, Edward says to her then: “You cannot see how you appear. I fear you are in the grip of some kind of mania.” Esther’s resolve in her own belief wanes by the final episode in the midst of the laudanum and Edward’s ongoing campaign to supplant her psychological well being. Edward is also unconsciously aided and abetted by Esther’s trusted German doctor, and man of his time, who is quick to diagnose her behavior as “hysterical” given she was in an emotional state with the failed attempts to conceive. This is a dismissive behavior consistent with his treatment of her ills by giving her a useless placebo mixture as his fertility tincture.

The campaign against Esther’s well being comes to a head in the final episode when Lady Denham, Esther, Clara, and Edward are sat with the minister to arrange Clara and Edwards contrived (and cursed) nuptials. Clara finally breaks down and reveals what Edward had been doing to Esther and what she had stood by after having found out that he was poisoning her. Clara’s apology and explanation to an Esther gaining lucidity was not only deeply evocative but gave a plain picture of how gaslighting operates: “He set out to convince you that you were insane. He took your deepest vulnerabilities and he exploited them.” To the end, Edward tries to maintain the manipulation by besmirching Clara’s perception and honesty by slamming the table before making a flustered (and evidently guilty) exit with “This is preposterous! You cannot believe her.” With the “cannot” less incredulous than demanding and disdainful from Edward’s poisonous lips. Edward attempts to gaslight everyone in the whole scene in the death throes of his deception. “Can’t you see what she’s doing with these lies? She’s trying to turn us against each other!” But, with the knowledge of Edward’s character, Lady Denham, one of the most powerful women in Sanditon, aligns herself with and believes other women over Edward’s loud, agitated assertions. And where Lady Denham would castigate Clara as being equally as “despicable” as Edward, Esther steps in with an awareness of the abuse that Clara has also endured from Edward.

The same fear of him and of her voice being discredited as well as her vulnerability as a “fallen woman” was the reason Clara had not spoken out before the cusp of the wedding date. In a later heart-to-heart between the two women before Clara gifts her son, Esther reflects on how deluded she had been by Edward and how relieved she was that her fears that she was unloved and abandoned by her husband were “ghosts in [her] mind, nothing more.” Clara replies “placed there by me and Edward,” to Esther’s response that “Edward exploited you.” This was the scene that many of us had been longing for as their enmity in the first season prevented two women from a sisterly alliance and advocacy that would only make them more resilient to the behaviors of someone like Edward and the broader machinations of a patriarchal society. Both women had endured abuse from men in their lives with Edward’s manipulation of Esther in their strange, at times romantic, stepsibling relationship and with Clara’s alluded to history of sexual abuse and warped entanglement with Edward. To see the two be at odds with one another when instead they could find comfort, empathy, and strength was, in my opinion, the greatest tension in the series.

While the romantic plots of season two were gripping with suitors representing variations on familiar Austen characters (Wickham especially with Lennox), the final scenes between Esther and Clara with the triumph of female friendship were by far the most evocative elements and part of a broader focus of the series on allyship in the face of divisive tactics. We also see this in the sugar strike that Georgiana spearheads and which even Esther, a Denham, silently supports at Lady Denham’s garden party where all of her guests participate in collective action to refuse to eat any cake to protest the slave trade. These scenes not only served as moments of brightness and encouragement against an otherwise troubling close to the season with certain romantic developments, but should serve as instruction for a divisive and inflammatory online space rife with infighting where there could be community.

While drafting this review, my mind has of course been occupied by the Supreme Court’s likely overturn of  Roe v. Wade and what this means for women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy- things that have never gone unchallenged. The choice we currently possess is by no means a luxury- it is a right- but we cannot rest on our laurels as not so long ago women did not have the rights that we now must refortify. Sanditon is practically didactic in its juxtaposition with the current hour as half the plot would not have transpired had Clara not had any recourse but to carry a child towards whom she was generally anywhere adamantly against to apathetic. While she was ultimately able to deliver the baby healthily and eventually into the waiting arms of Esther, the pregnancy made her vulnerable, stigmatized, and put her in the power of a male abuser and- at the risk of presentism- I think that if Clara had the recourse we need to fight to keep, the plot may have progressed in a different way. But, we still have something to apply to our present given how the allyship between Clara and Esther as well as Georgiana and those supporting the strike is exactly what we need against political powers determined to isolate and to weaken. Because if we start to doubt, name-call, or diminish each other as a means of virtue signaling or for any other perceived reward, as so often happens online, we will be divided and drinking from a chalice more poisoned than Esther’s vial.

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