Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s my history with Sanditon:
Knowing that I liked Jane Austen, my grandmother gave me a copy of Sanditon some years ago. I started to read it, got about three chapters in, and threw in the towel. And that’s when I formed a new reading rule: no more reading incomplete manuscripts that the author died while writing. Because the thing is, you’re almost always going to be reading a first draft by the original author, and no matter how talented a writer is, the first draft sucks. It’s word vomit. You’re just desperately trying to get everything onto the page, and you’ll go back and clean it up later. And often, the story changes significantly between the first and final drafts, so there’s no guarantee that an incomplete fragment is even the direction the final story was intended to go.
Reading Sanditon was unsatisfying for me. It lacked Austen’s usual sparkle and wry humour. It felt flat, and dull. I didn’t care about anything that was going on. And so, I stopped and never went back.
Suffice to say, I went into this with somewhat low expectations. And yet, this still manages to disappoint. Hoo boy, strap in, folks, because this is gonna be crazy.
And if you are absolutely loving Sanditon, I’ll just say: you might not want to read these recaps. Because I don’t love it, and I’m gonna make fun of it. A lot. You’ve been warned.
So, the story starts with a couple, Mr and Mrs Tom Parker, careening through the countryside in their carriage. Said carriage crashes, and the Parkers are rescued by a local girl, Charlotte Heywood.
Tom Parker is currently developing the nearby coastal town of Sanditon, hoping to make it the next Brighton (though we all know what happens when you send young girls to Brighton…). As thanks for helping himself and his wife, Parker invites Charlotte to join them in the town for the “season” he’s trying to launch.
Charlotte is delighted to go, having grown up in the sort of family that prides itself on never travelling more than five miles from home. Because that sort of myopia is definitely something to brag about. Charlotte’s sweet. She’s very wide-eyed, and very innocent and we know this because she runs around with her hair all messy all the time, which is annoying as hell to me, for some reason. Maybe because the actress looks really young, and her youthful looks and the down hair give her the air of a prepubescent child, which makes her positioning as the romantic heroine of the story kind of creepy.
And that’s not all that’s creepy, believe me.
In town, Charlotte quickly meets Lady Denham, Tom’s major investor and the local grande dame. She’s a Lady Catherine de Bourgh type. Maybe slightly less bitchy (for now!) and slightly more self-aware. She’s immensely rich and yet wears clothes that are several decades out of fashion. Not that older people don’t tend to cling to out-of-date looks or anything, but it’s super bizarre that she’s walking around in gowns that were last in fashion 60-70 years before this is meant to take place. It’s…odd and I find it a little distracting.
Anyway, Lady Denham has no children, so the family vultures are circling for her money. She has living with her a distant younger relative, Clara, who seems nice and makes friends with Charlotte. They even go sea bathing together! There are also a pair of impoverished relatives living nearby: Sir Edward and Esther Denham, a brother-sister pair who seem to have got their ideas of sibling relationships from the Lannister twins. They are very obviously the BAD GUYS who are only after Lady D’s money and think Clara’s the only thing that stands in their way. Clara, therefore, has got to go.
Apropos of nothing, Esther seems to be going to the same hairdresser as Rita Heyworth.
(Look, I told you I was going to make fun of it!)
Ok, so we have some of our characters. We’re also introduced to one of Tom Parker’s brothers, Arthur, a likeable buffoon who, at times, seems like he was plucked straight from a Christmas pantomime, and the Parker sister, Diana, who doesn’t seem to have much purpose yet. Imagine a younger Miss Bates and you’ve got her. There’s another Parker, Sidney, who’s very dashing and lives in London. Tom’s counting on him to show up for a ball he’s planning, and bring along some fashionable friends to fill out the company.
But first, we must get some rather tired humour on the beach. Everyone is VERY interested in this whole sea bathing thing and Clara just insists Charlotte try it out. The two ladies go, costuming themselves in cumbersome, head-to-toe early bathing suits and lowering themselves into the freezing water from wheeled bathing machines while the men just toss their clothes aside and wade right into the water, completely nude and completely visible from where the ladies are bathing. No. Just… no. That is a HUGE no for the time. Men might have swum naked, but they would NEVER do it in such close proximity to ladies. Unmarried young ladies, no less!
Look, I’m not a total purist–I can accept some inaccuracies and anachronisms, but things like this are so jarring I just can’t see past them. Especially when they serve no purpose. Like we don’t know that expectations of women were higher then, and some of their burdens far heavier? Yeah, thanks, I think we’re aware. Especially since the bulk of your audience is female and has been living with this sort of thing her whole damn life. We may be able to wear less to the beach, but believe me, we’re keenly aware of the policing of our bodies.
Ok, so Charlotte and Clara are getting to be friends. But then, while on her way to pay a visit to Lady D, Charlotte spots Clara out in the woods giving Sir Edward a hand job.
Yeah, because that’s what Jane Austen is known for: all those sex acts in the garden.
(And for anyone wondering, in the original novel fragment, Charlotte just sees the pair “in close conversation” in the garden near the house.)
I just don’t really get why the writers adapting novels these days feel the need to sex things up. Do they think Game of Thrones has wrecked us, and that we won’t watch anything that doesn’t at least give us some bare bottoms and third base? Do they actually think that anyone ever has said, ‘Yeah, I’d watch a Jane Austen movie, if only it had more hand jobs in the woods. Otherwise, eh.’
Come on. Have some respect for your audience, Davies!
Later, both Edward and Clara try to explain themselves (separately) to Charlotte. Edward’s line: Oh, I was just comforting her. Clara’s: I was getting him off so he wouldn’t rape me.
Charlotte’s response to both of them: none of my business! Leave me alone!
Tom’s stressing a bit about Sidney being late and not getting in touch and oh, God, is he going to make it in time for the ball?
Sidney does show up, along with a couple of n’er do well friends. I spend most of Sidney’s first scene staring at him and wondering if he has a soul patch. He does not, it was just an awkward chin shadow, but he does have some very distracting stubble. I guess it’s supposed to make him look sexy? Or something? Even though he’s not at all supposed to be the rugged type, he’s cosmopolitan, from London. It just makes him look unkempt and, again, would be a definite no in this period. You either had facial hair or you were clean shaven (mostly clean-shaven. Beards were very unfashionable).
I won’t mince words: Sidney’s a dick. A total early Mr Darcy. Anyone else noticing a pattern? That most of the characters feel like they were recycled from other Austen novels? The dialogue feels that way too.
I should take the opportunity to point out that Sidney is played by Theo James, and if he looks familiar, it’s because he was the late, lamented Kamal Pamouk in Downton Abbey. Oh, remember early Downton? Good times. Now THAT was a show that had its costume and hairstyle game together.
Around the same time that Sidney arrives, a woman who apparently runs some sort of finishing school lands, along with a few of her charges. Chief amongst them is Miss Lambe, a mixed-race heiress from Antigua, and man, there’s a lot to unpack there, what with the implications of race relations, slavery, sexual exploitation, and empire. It’s clear she and Sidney have some sort of a past, and a very tense relationship, but that’s pretty much all we know. She’s also desperate to get back to London, but nobody seems to think that’s a good idea.
The ball! There must be a ball! And there is one! Complete with some rather anachronistic waltz-like dancing! And a woman singing in… Welsh? Gaelic? Not English, I can tell that much. It’s a lovely song, but feels a little misplaced in the scene. I doubt it would have made an appearance at an assembly room ball thrown by someone desperately trying to build up the town’s high-class bonafides.
During the ball, Charlotte runs into Sidney on a balcony overlooking the dance floor and they get to talking about the people around them. He asks her what she makes of him and she says it seems like he must be the most sensible and grounded of the Parker brothers. I should point out that she prefaces what she says next with, ‘I may be mistaken.’ She then goes on to say that Arthur seems to bounce back and forth between being really lethargic and really excitable, and Tom may be a little over-enthusiastic. He’s so into his work to make Sanditon a destination he seems like he might be neglecting his family. Which is true, and Charlotte, being an outsider placed in their home, is pretty much the perfect person to observe this.
But Sidney does not at all like what he hears. He cuts her off with a line almost directly stolen from P&P: ‘Upon my word, you give your opinion very freely‘
Charlotte, understandably thrown by his hostility, starts stammering, but he goes on to call her out, calling her ignorant and unworldly, which in his eyes means she’s not in any way qualified to make judgements or observations of those around her. Oh, Sidney, what nonsense! Just because she’s not been around the world doesn’t mean she doesn’t know when someone’s neglecting his wife, or swinging back and forth between laziness and hyperactivity. Those are not things that can only be observed in cities!
He continues to yell at her, basically intimating that she’s useless, sitting around in her father’s house with her piano and embroidery while his brother Tom, at least, is trying to leave his mark and make the world a better place. Oh, bullshit. He’s trying to turn some backwater town into a resort so he can make money off of it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, but it’s hardly making the world a better place. He’s not feeding orphans or anything. If anything, gentrification of that type tends to dislocate the less prosperous and make them less well off, if not straight-up homeless.
When he finally pauses in his tirade, Charlotte hurries to sincerely apologise for having offended him. And then, instead of being in any way gracious, he sneers that he shouldn’t have expected so much from a girl of so little experience and understanding.
What an asshole this guy is. He asks her opinion, and then when she gives it and he doesn’t like what he hears, he yells at her like she’s a child. When she attempts to apologise, he doubles down and insults her. I hate him. Go back to London and get a damn shave, Sidney. Who the hell do you think you are?
Our hero, ladies and gentleman. I guess. The type of man who makes a girl cry at her very first ball. Awesome.