Jane Austen fans aren’t spoiled for choice when it comes to film and TV adaptations of our favorite novels. But there are only so many times a girl can rewatch the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Austen wrote only six novels and each of them has been adapted multiple times (and in fact there is a new Emma film out right now). As a devoted Austen fan, I’ve often wished she had lived longer and written more novels because I truly never tire of them.
So when Andrew Davies, who wrote the Pride and Prejudice that gave us wet Colin Firth, announced he was making a series based on Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, I was thrilled. Finally, a new Austen story! And Austen addict that I am, I actually read Sanditon years ago and always thought the premise was intriguing. The 11-chapter scrap of a novel is set in Sanditon, a seaside town being developed into a fashionable health resort by the enthusiastic Mr. Parker and his business partner, wealthy but prickly Lady Denham. When country girl Charlotte Heywood meets the Parkers by chance, she’s invited to come stay with them and see Sanditon for herself. Sadly for us, Austen was ill and had to stop writing right after Charlotte meets Mr. Parker’s brother Sidney, who is described as quite good-looking. And we know what that means…
Sanditon contains all the elements necessary for a classic Austen experience: an inexperienced but smart heroine, fashionable society, rich people who expect to be heeded, and a promising love interest. I assumed Davies’s new TV series might be like the recent film Love and Friendship, in which a director who truly understands Austen’s work (in that case, Whit Stillman) fully fleshes out her story. After all, Davies made the definitive P&P and has adapted a number of other classic novels. How could it go wrong?
Oh, but it did. Unfortunately, Sanditon was disappointing. (Here is your spoiler warning: if you haven’t seen Sanditon and want to stay unspoiled, stop reading now.)
On the surface, Sanditon has the look and feel of a standard Austen adaptation. ITV and PBS know what they’re doing with period pieces (they gave us Downton Abbey, after all). The costumes are spot on and in some cases sumptuous, the set design and decoration is lovely, and the cast is all excellent. The standouts for me were Rose Williams as Charlotte, Charlotte Spencer as Esther Denham, and Leo Suter as Young Stringer. As Sidney, Theo James is appealingly stern and very easy on the eyes (although I suspect that Williams and Suter have a more natural onscreen chemistry). There are even scenes of men bathing in the nude. Aside from the fact that Charlotte’s hair is loose and blowing about in the wind in nearly every scene (not an early 19th century hairstyle trend), it looked right.
There’s also plenty of intrigue to explore, with a set of scheming heirs looking to secure Lady Denham’s fortune, innocent Charlotte learning about the ways of fashionable people, and the mysterious Georgiana Lambe, a mixed race heiress from what was then known as the West Indies. This is true to Austen’s manuscript—Miss Lambe is the only Black character in Austen’s work. It’s beyond overdue and very welcome to see a Black character and a storyline about the slave trade in a period piece like this.
Yes, it all seemed very promising, but it didn’t pay off. The biggest problem with Sanditon is that it’s actually, literally unfinished—the series ends on a cliffhanger, with Charlotte and Sidney in love with each other but unable to be together. Perhaps we’ll get a second season, but it’s not clear. Regardless, it’s a huge risk to leave the ending up in the air when you’re adapting an author known for her tidy romantic endings. Those perfectly plotted resolutions are integral to the charm of Austen’s work—they feel natural, almost inevitable and yet still a touch surprising (there’s always a real danger it won’t work out between a couple), which is why they are so satisfying.
Davies is also known for bringing a bit of sex into Austen’s buttoned-up world—he gave us wet Darcy, of course! I can’t argue with that, but there are multiple sexy scenes in Sanditon, and I found them very distracting. It’s hard to imagine Austen’s version of this story including step-siblings who are in love with each other, let alone as obvious about it as the Denham siblings are. And I find it hard to believe that an unmarried female character in an Austen novel would be giving a hand job in the woods. If she did, we wouldn’t be seeing it, and we would hear about it later in the vaguest of gossipy terms. In Austen’s version of this story, I suspect we would be wondering about the strangely close relationship between the Denham siblings, not watching one help the other undress. And we would not have an unmarried heroine who is relatively unfazed to see naked Sidney rising out of the sea.
In a recent interview, Davies said, “There’s a good deal of sensuality offstage in Austen novels, and I’m just moving it into the foreground.” Moving that sensuality into the foreground may make things sexier, but its offstage nature is what gives it power in the novels. The point of Austen’s sensuality is that it’s all subtext. It’s characters locking eyes across a ballroom, blushing when their love interest speaks to them, admiring each other after the exertion of a brisk walk.
Austen is a satirist, and that subtext is a winking acknowledgement of how inconvenient romantic attraction can be. It’s also a signal of the sensual bonds between characters who may pair up, a little clue for discerning readers. When do we first learn Darcy might have a thing for Elizabeth? When he admires the brilliance of her complexion after she’s taken a long walk—an undeniably physical moment. But he says nothing about it, because Austen’s characters live in a world governed by restrictive social mores. Only the reader knows what he’s really thinking. Davies’s Sanditon is missing this kind of subtle interplay between reader (or viewer) and character, and it’s poorer for it.
Remember when I said there was a Black character in this series? Although Miss Lambe has a promising plot line involving a secret love interest with gambling debts, that story, too, is not resolved at all, and she is reduced to a minor supporting character in the last few episodes. We don’t even get to see her wish her friend Charlotte goodbye. It’s disappointing, especially when she was played so well by Crystal Clarke. Why include Miss Lambe’s story and make such welcome, pointed comments about the slave trade and her unusual status as an heiress if you aren’t going to do it justice?
It all feels like we’re still in the middle of an Austen novel, not at the end of one. It seems strange that Davies couldn’t tell this story in eight episodes, which is already long for an Austen adaptation. If it was all a gamble to get a second season, let’s hope it pays off—because I do want to see what happens to these characters. Yes, even though Sanditon was disappointing, and after all that complaining, I want a second season. Austen’s unfinished novel deserves to be completed, and characters from Charlotte to Georgiana deserve a proper ending. Will the resort town of Sanditon be completed? Will the Parkers be saved from financial ruin without Sidney having to marry a woman he doesn’t love? Will he find his way back to Charlotte or will she seek happiness elsewhere? Austen would never leave these questions unanswered, so let’s hope we find out.