PBS Masterpiece Sanditon

Three questions about Andrew Davies’ Sanditon

Two weeks after Andrew Davies’ PBS Masterpiece Sanditon (2019) concluded, the #sanditonsisterhood continues its bid for a second season. Even some diehard #Sidlotte fans, though, have conveyed disgruntlement about the contrived finale, which completely turned the series on its head with Sidney Parker’s (Theo James) selfless decision to marry Eliza Campion (Ruth Kearny) in order to save his brother’s resort, thereby abruptly ending his and Charlotte’s imminent engagement. Fans have expressed their desire for a “neat ending,” arguing that Jane Austen would have given her readers such an ending. Although the design of the conclusion was meant to breath life into a second season, it has ironically had the opposite effect. Anyone who watched the series carefully knows that it had potential. As Abigail Kunkel points out below, it took a worthy risk in focusing on strong female friendships, and as Madeline Scully shows, even the conservative characterization of the older female characters gave us something to think about. In the end, Davies’ Sanditon might face a similar fate to Tom Parker’s (Kris Marshall) Sanditon–but with no selfless relatives to repair the damage. Below we consider why the miniseries failed to fulfill its own promises and the questions that arise from these failures regarding what mainstream Austen-inspired series are unwilling to imagine.

Why are we unable to center older female characters?

In my first review of Andrew Davies’ Sanditon (2019), I explored the characterization of the older women and how they acted as the moral gatekeepers of the series. I had hoped that later episodes would challenge these trite expectations created for older female characters in both films and texts, but that would turn out to not be the case. Despite the opportunity to create a space for the stories of older female characters, Davies’s Sanditon presents a fairly stereotypical character arc for Mrs. Parker (Kate Ashfield) and Lady Deham (Anne Reid), while barely paying attention to Diana Parker (Alexandra Roach). Throughout the series there are countless opportunities for these three female characters to take on challenges and prove themselves as integral members of the community. In Regency era terms, they are; Lady Denham is a rich widow who is supporting the town financially and Mrs. Parker is a dutiful wife who ushers Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) into Sanditon society. However, Davies relies on these characters to provide broad support to the town of Sanditon, generally at the cost of their own happiness and better judgement. For all three this means uniting behind Mr. Parker (Kris Marshall), although this support comes form a different position for each woman: for Mrs. Parker this means fighting to be heard; for Lady Denham this means allowing the Parker family another shot at making Sanditon a resort town; and for Diana Parker this means uniting the family. The series claims that it allows for the growth of non-traditional characters, a group which older women belong to, and it does allow for the stories of other non-traditional characters to be told. However, these older female characters remain much the same; the women are living within the confines of a society (and a series) that has mapped out their lives for them. 

It’s Mr. Parker’s fiscal irresponsibility that makes him dependent on the women around him: he depends on Lady Denham to fund Sanditon while depending on Mrs. Parker and Diana Parker for familial support. Throughout the series Mr. Parker has a history of risky investment and money management, and he routinely hides this from Mrs. Parker. When she discovers his debts, she challenges him to tell her the truth, but in the next breath supports him (“Episode Five”). After a fire breaks out in Sanditon, killing Old Mr. Stringer (Rob Jarvis) and leaving the family facing near certain financial ruin, Mrs. Parker tells Mr. Parker, “‘I can’t bear to see you punishing yourself'” (“Episode Eight”). It was Mr. Parker’s decision not to insure the building that leaves the family in such dire straits, but she tells him that she believes in him. I understand the desire to support a grieving partner, but after the realization that Mr. Parker was keeping financial secrets, and the resulting marital strife, this reaction felt out of character for a woman who demanded that her husband share information with her. While Mrs. Parker frequently appeared to fit the archetype of a retiring, docile wife, I found her to be a character that quietly challenged perceptions. Although there is no question that she inhabited the domestic sphere, I found Mrs. Parker to be a character that used that power that space gave her. Despite her unwavering support for Mr. Parker, it is not freely given. She demands that he fix the situation, “‘No more promises Tom, all you ever do is break them'” (“Episode Five”). Throughout the series the audience sees him fighting to prove his worth to Mrs. Parker and the family, and Mrs. Parker is able to use that desire to please to her advantage whenever possible. 

In the beginning of the series Lady Denham was the archetypal cranky old woman, and while she does not change monumentally throughout the series, there are some significant shifts. In the middle of the series Lady Denham falls seriously ill and it is unclear if she will survive. While she ultimately does survive, her illness leads to the revelation of the relationship and deception between Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky) and Edward Denham (Jack Fox). In response, Lady Denham makes Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) her heir and begins to thaw their frosty relationship. This change in Lady Denham extends primarily to Esthers, they have an open conversation in which Lady Denham divulges some of her life story to Esther and shares how her experiences have impacted her understanding of love and marriage (“Episode Eight”). This discussion with Esther gives nuance to Lady Denham’s character, exposing the depth of her lived experience, which she keeps hidden from her family and neighbors. And although she remains a cranky old woman to the town of Sanditon, she has been revealed to the audience as a complex, multifaceted character. When she learns of Mr. Parker’s decision not to insure the building and their resulting financial ruin, she exclaims “‘I will see you in the debtors prison, I will see you in the poorhouse'” (“Episode Eight”). Mrs. Parker speaks up in defense of the family, but Lady Denham response with “‘some things can never be forgiven'” (“Episode Eight”). In a last-ditch attempt to protect the family, Sidney Parker (Theo James) asks for a week’s grace to get the money together to save the town. As a result, in a model well-honed by Diana Parker, another Parker sibling falls on their sword to protect Mr. Parker and the family honor. 

Diana Parker remains the least changed of the three women, perhaps because she is the older female character the series pays the least attention to. In the final episode Diana Parker acts as a unifying force for the parker family, when the siblings gather at the site of the fire in the light of day, she refuses to let it ruin the town stating, “we are Parkers” (“Episode Eight”). Throughout the series she busies herself with describing the various maladies facing herself and Arthur Parker (Turlough Convery), creating a unity in ill-health. It is only in the last two episodes of the series, and the potential of Arthur’s growing relationship with Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke) that Diana Parker becomes truly outspoken. She confronts Arthur with her worry that, “you’ll marry her, and I’ll be left all on my own” (“Episode Eight”). Diana Parker’s life as an unmarried woman is privileged because of her brother’s bachelor lifestyle, but with the brief potential of a courtship with Miss Lambe, audiences get a glimpse of the unpredictable nature of life for an unmarried woman who is dependent on the goodwill of other relatives. Arthur does not pursue this courtship with Miss Lambe because, “I don’t really know how the ladies work,” but the potential for Diana Parker’s life to change reminds audiences that women had no ownership or control of property (“Episode Eight”). 

Regardless of the potential challenges to characterization, with the exception of Diana Parker, each of these women is left alone at the end of the series. The young women leave the older women: Charlotte Heywood returns to Willingden unmarried; Esther Denham marries Lord Babington (Mark Stanley); and Miss Lambe continues as Sidney Parker’s ward. Mrs. Parker and Lady Denham remain in Sanditon where, it is safe to assume, they continue to oversee Mr. Parker while Diana Parker returns to London with Arthur Parker. In the end, audiences are left with a question of representation. Why, even when older female characters prove to have something interesting to show us, are we unable to center them? 

Diana Parker (Alexandra Roach), Eliza Campion (Ruth Kearney), Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), Mrs. Parker (Kate Ashfield), and Lady Susan (Sophie Winkleman) watching the regatta in Episode Seven
by Madeline Scully

Works Cited:

“Episode Five.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 2 Feb. 2020.

“Episode Eight.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 23 Feb. 2020. 

Why must strong female friendships be at the service of the courtship plot?

When I wrote my last review, of “Episode Three” and “Episode Four” of Sanditon (2019), I was full of optimism for the series and excited by its seeming promise to explore young women’s coalitions against patriarchy or the issues of racism amidst the background of slavery in the period. I was also invested in what seemed like a burgeoning discussion of domestic violence and sexual abuse. However, the finale of Sanditon did not bring any of its promises to fruition, although it gave me additional empathy for Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) who had placed so much hope in her stepbrother and early romantic interest Edward (Jack Fox) only to be tragically led on by false promises with no substance. In another, perhaps hyperbolic, expression of disappointment, it’s fair to say that many viewers of the finale episode can relate to Charlotte (Rose Williams) in the last scene, as she weeps in her carriage while being transported away from Sanditon. Like her, viewers were also reluctantly transported away from the potential of the series and any hope of a resolution, since the series almost certainly will not be renewed (“Episode Eight”).

The cause of Charlotte’s tears is the tragic end to her romance with Sidney–and perhaps Sanditon itself. The most resounding disappointment of the series was the tragic note on which it left off. Not only did the protagonists’ romance abruptly end, but also Georgiana (Crystal Clarke) and her suitor’s, causing her to spend the last part of the series crying in bed (“Episode Seven”), and young Mr. Stringer’s (Leo Suter) father died in a fire that threatened to destroy Sanditon. If it weren’t enough that the end of Sanditon leaves both emotional and material rubble for everyone involved in its attempt to achieve a second series, the show also did not fully utilize the time it did have to develop many of its cursorily included subplots or social criticisms. This makes Charlotte and Sidney’s (Theo James) end especially frustrating in a sense, as the privileging of this foiled romantic plot led to much disappointment and also damaged the opportunity for other thematic explorations. My excitement about the potential for nuance in the early dynamics between the two sets of young women, Charlotte and Georgiana as well as Esther and Clara (Lily Sacofsky), was stifled by the simplistic vilification of Clara Brereton at the end of the series, and its shift away from Charlotte and Georgiana in favor of Charlotte and Sidney, which turned out to be a fruitless relationship anyway.

Charlotte and Georgiana. PBS Masterpiece.

Charlotte and Georgiana’s friendship seemed to all but give way after the arrival of Lady Susan to Sanditon who, in addition to being an Easter-egg of another unpublished Austen work, served as the means for Charlotte to recognize her feelings for Sidney. Their friendship emerges at the masque, where Charlotte and Lady Susan meet directly after Georgiana’s rescue from captivity and where Charlotte perfunctorily detailed her friend’s near sale before demurring about and then elaborating on her feelings for Sidney much more expansively (“Episode Six”). Indeed, Charlotte’s relationships with both Georgiana and then Lady Susan are formed in large part around her pursuit of Sidney. This raises unpleasant questions about the genuineness of each relationship as perhaps they are – however unconsciously- simply expedient to Charlotte’s romance with Sidney. At the series’ close, there is no last goodbye depicted between Georgiana and Charlotte, and Georgiana appears all but forgotten when Charlotte is shown saying goodbye to Lady Susan. By contrast, Charlotte makes certain to visit Mr. Stringer, her other potential love interest.

These plot turns call into question the importance of female friendships over romance. Following a similar path to Charlotte and Georgiana’s friendship, Clara and Esther’s initial solidarity also dissipates to give way to a romantic storyline. Before it seemed that Clara was empathetic towards the manipulative, abusive dynamic between Edward and Esther given her own history of sexual abuse by her uncle, and thus Clara advocated for Esther’s escape (“Episode Four”). However, despite the opportunity to explore female support networks and advocacy, ultimately Esther is saved from Edward by the man who she marries, Lord Babington (Mark Stanley), while Clara is painted as an uncomplicated villain who conspired to steal her aunt’s fortune with Edward, Esther’s abuser. We are left to assume that she cares nothing for her aunt’s wellbeing, and are provided with little explanation for how Clara’s past may have hardened her to act in such a way (“Episode Eight”). Clara also seems to demonstrate no empathy towards Esther’s pain when she informs her that she had sex with Edward to sweeten the deal, as it were, after they conspired to split the fortune once they had destroyed Lady Denham’s will.

Esther and Clara. Source: ReelMockery

The practically monstrous characterization of Clara in light of her experience of sexual abuse is extremely troubling to me, especially as the series could have instead expanded Clara and Esther’s relationship into one of support amidst the effects of abuse. In short, unlike what I had first hoped, there was no real sisterhood in Sanditon. In perhaps an ironic turn of events, one of the hashtags circulating among fans anxious for the series renewal is #sanditonsisterhood, a reference to the bonds between female fans of the Austen adaptation. It suggests that a community predominantly made up of women on the Internet is itself stronger than the flimsy, circumstantial ties between the female characters of the series. At the end of it all, it appears that the real Sanditon sisterhood is the one we have created ourselves.


Works Cited:

“Episode Four.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 26 Jan. 2020.

“Episode Seven.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 16 Feb. 2020. 

“Episode Eight.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 23 Feb. 2020.

Why must Miss Georgiana Lambe be pushed to the sidelines?

Much of my excitement about Davies’ miniseries stemmed from what initially appeared to be a promising plot for Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke). But my excitement steadily declined as of “Episode Six,” when it became evident that Georgiana was but an accessory for Charlotte and Sidney’s romance. (As a side note, I was also excited about the possibility of Charlotte’s apparent interest in Stringer, which would have made for an interesting rejection of the gentry in favor of the rising professional class.) In early episodes Georgiana appeared a defiant character, unwilling to capitulate to her guardian or to tolerate Lady Denham’s racist insults. Her independent spirit was captured in a particularly memorable scene when Georgiana paints a scandalous–likely an erotic or otherwise sexual–image to the delight of the Miss Beauforts (Mollie Holder and Kayleigh-Page Reiss) and the distress of Mrs. Griffiths (Elizabeth Berrington) and Mr. Hankins (Kevin Eldon). This humorous scene, which was also composed in visually compelling ways by juxtaposing Georgiana in a majestic mustard yellow dress against a backdrop of seagrass and light gray sky, suggested that she would be allowed to determine her own fate (“Episode Two”). But the events of “Episode Six” prove this was perhaps a ruse to capture the interest of a wider audience. Rather than remaining at the forefront of the miniseries, Georgiana recedes to the background and nearly disappears. Actually, Georgiana’s defiant character gets her in trouble. She is abducted and sold due to the indiscretions of her romantic interest, Otis Molyneaux (Jyuddah Jaymes), who turns out to be a reckless gambler, and with whom she secretly corresponds with Charlotte’s help. These events dampen Georgian’s spiritedness, reducing her to a heartbroken and confined character. Since she becomes increasingly invisible following these events, the series seems to suggest that the end of her courtship plot marks the end of her relevance for the story. In fact, the half hearted attempts to include her character in episodes 7 and 8 underscore Georgiana’s insignificance for the overall story.

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

Although once Charlotte, Georgiana, Sidney and Tom Parker have returned to Sanditon after their adventure in London, the story turns completely to Charlotte and Sidney, there is room for Esther Denhanm (Charlotte Spencer) and Lord Babington’s (Mark Stanley) own romance to come to fruition. I will admit that this relationship is the source of my only satisfaction with the series. These two characters were perhaps the most well-developed of the story. But their marriage begs the question of why Georgiana was not at least given a similar ending. Instead, she is bed-ridden in “Episode Seven” and makes an appearance only twice. First, when her reformed guardian visits her bedroom to convey his lukewarm desire for her recovery. Second, when out of thin air, Arthur Parker (Turlough Convery) remembers Georgiana midway through the regatta. Arthur’s apparent care for Georgiana works in his character’s favor, revealing his tenderness and thoughtfulness. His sympathies have the opposite effect on Georgiana’s character as they prove to be superficial. Arthur’s sudden affection for Georgiana is the only way the series could make up for the abrupt shift in Charlotte’s interest in her friend.

Consequently, Arthur and Georgiana’s relationship comes across as a kind of second-hand friendship. In fact, while Georgiana warms up to Arthur in “Episode Eight,” the superficial nature of this friendship is completely exposed when Diana Parker (Alexandra Roach) confesses her concern about Arthur’s attachment to the wealthy Georgiana, since she suspects he will propose and destine her to the precarious life of a spinster. As Madeline has noted, Diana’s fate is an important acknowledgement of the unstable conditions most unmarried women were likely to experience. Although Arthur’s immediate denial of any romantic or marital interest in Georgiana secures a livelihood for Diana, it gives the final blow to Georgiana’s relevance as a character in the story. After she is left behind by the protagonist, Georgiana’s character is not even given closure in her own terms. Instead, she is gradually pushed to the edges of the story by characters who themselves are only marginal to the plot.

Ultimately, it appears that Davies and his team were not committed to the development of Austen’s Miss Lambe. Further evidence of this resides in their choice to show Charlotte saying goodbye to Stringer but not Georgiana, as Abigail notes. Instead, viewers hoping to get closure for Georgiana’s character must be satisfied with catching a glimpse of her cheering Esther and Lord Babington as they exit the church. Far from being able to create her own portrait, Georgiana is, first, forgotten, and then, remembered only to be seen cheering others on from the sidelines. We will never know Jane Austen’s plans for her own Miss Lambe. What we know is that a series which allegedly wanted to take risks opted to forget, rather than center, a character who has historically been sidelined. At the same time that Davies’ Sanditon was willing to address the slave trade and racism, it was unwilling to reimagine the nineteenth-century courtship plot through the lens of a defiant black woman. Instead, it leaves us with a poorly executed story about two fairly conventional characters.

It remains to be seen for how long the #sanditonsisterhood will keep up its campaign for a second season. Two weeks out from the finale, it is fair to say that their enthusiasm for the series has already outlasted Charlotte’s interest for her friend, Miss Georgiana Lambe.

by Adela Ramos

Works Cited:

“Episode Two.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater, 12 Jan. 2020.

“Episode Six.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater,  9 Feb. 2020.

“Episode Seven.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater,  16 Feb. 2020.

“Episode Eight.” Sanditon. PBS: Masterpiece Theater,  23 Feb. 2020.

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