Sanditon, now airing on PBS and available on DVD in Britain, is based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel of 1816-1817. “Unfinished” creates the impression of a novel lacking perhaps only a conclusion – a somewhat generous assumption.
A few hours’ reading from the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen gives the lie to that belief. Sanditon runs to just 67 pages, about a sixth the length of Pride and Prejudice. It’s less a novel unfinished than one barely begun.
Nonetheless, Austen’s ingredients are present. The heroine, Charlotte Heywood, pretty and intelligent, comes to Sanditon, a new “bathing” resort by the sea, as a guest of Thomas Parker and his wife. Thomas is developing Sanditon. But he depends on the investment of Lady Denham, a rich local dowager, kind enough but with the blind spots typical of Austen’s proud, wealthy widows. Her nephew, Sir Edward Denham, a poor baronet, plots to get Lady Denham’s inheritance and discredit Clara Brereton, Lady D’s young relation, whom he fears the old lady favours.
His sister Esther is proud and discontented and little else.
A West Indian family, which includes a sickly, rich “half mulatto” Miss Lambe, will arrive soon. Thomas has three hypochondriac siblings. One other healthy brother, Sidney, 28, “very good-looking” and possessing “a lively countenance”, comes for a brief stay at Sanditon with “a friend or two”.
That last bit of intelligence emerges two pages before the end of Austen’s manuscript; moreover, it’s Sidney’s only appearance.
Again, one can easily detect the stuff that makes for a Jane Austen plot, but it’s much too sketchy. And in that sad fact lies the mischief of PBS’s Sanditon. For screenwriter Andrew Davies (who did well enough with 1995’s Pride and Prejudice but botched 2019’s absurd Les Misérables), there remained but one choice: either forget Sanditon or invent it. Needless to say, he chose to embroider and dropped more than a few stitches.
How un-Austen does it get? Davies’s Sidney (Theo James) proves alternatingly charming and sour, which, recalling Mr Darcy, is believable. But when Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) strolls on the beach and suddenly spots a pile of clothes, Sidney surfaces from the brine stark naked.
The conniving Sir Edward (Jack Fox) and sister Esther (Charlotte Spencer) are close to incestuous; she feistily calls Clara (Lily Sacofsky) a “bitch” to her face. Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke) shows up, only to be insulted by a race-baiting Lady Denham. To top it all off, Sidney has somehow become Miss Lambe’s guardian, protecting her from her true love, a former slave named Otis (Jyuddah Jaymes).
Laughable and infuriating in turns, this mishmash is set to Celtic flutes, drums, and fiddles, not just in the background, but at a Sanditon ball where an unknown lady warbling the ditty weaves amid a chaotic dance. Fie!
Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.