by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 14, 2020
Over the past year, I’ve lost my ability to binge-watch TV. My mind just doesn’t latch on to shows like it once did. However, Sunday night I watched three episodes of Sanditon and then last night finished up the season by watching five more episodes. Only two have been broadcast, but if you donate to PBS and sign up for your Passport account, you can stream all eight episodes now.
Sanditon is based on a Jane Austen unfinished novel. She had completed about 24,000 words when she died. If you’re really interested you should read what Wikipedia said about the unfinished novel and the new TV series. The first of the eight episodes cover what Jane Austen originally wrote, so the next seven episodes are new. The show does have the feel of Jane Austen except for two glaring issues. There are a couple of sex scenes, and some British viewers claim the ending is not what Jane Austen would have written. I was thinking the ending might be setting us up for a second season, so I was withholding judgment.
I was completely delighted with the mini-series and thought it very Jane Austen-ish for the most part. Farmgirl Charlotte Heywood gets to stay with Tom and Mary Parker, a well-to-do family who live in Sanditon, a seaside village. Tom pours his fortune and others into making Sanditon a prosperous vacation destination. That reminds me of the spa town Bath from the Austen novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Tom has a brother, Sidney who insults, ignores, and irritates Charlotte no end. We’ve seen that relationship before with Mr. Darcy. Charlotte also reminds me of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, being a naïve visitor in a grandeur society and growing up quickly. Charlotte has a lot of Emma Woodhouse in her too by her meddling. Sanditon also has a rich old woman, Lady Denham who is a lot like Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Pride and Prejudice. The only thing missing are red-coated soldiers, but this work might be set after the Napoleonic Wars, or Jane had planned to write about them in later chapters. One new character type for Jane was Miss Lambe, a black heiress, who was in the unfinished manuscript. If only Jane had finished this story. Would she have made the story almost a cliché of her earlier work? Or would it strike out to be distinctly different like all her six famous novels?
One of the intriguing aspects to the unfinished Sanditon that Wikipedia points out is the story has been finished before in various ways by a number of authors. Mary Gaither Marshall at the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) wrote an extensive essay about the completers: “Jane Austen’s Sanditon: Inspiring Continuations, Adaptions, and Spin-offs for 200 Years.” Her essay suggests most of the continuations were off the mark in terms of actually writing something that Jane Austen would have written. At first, I wanted to try some of these completions, but after reading Marshall’s essay closer, I’m not so sure. Too many of them added silly gimmicks.
After enjoying the miniseries I read the unfinished Austen novel. It’s twelve chapters barely fleshed out the first episode. The next seven episodes don’t contradict what Jane Austen had started, but there is little evidence to suggest that’s where she was going. Tom Parker’s obsession was the likely plot in my mind. Eleanor Bley Griffiths gives a few clues to the difference between what Austen wrote and what Andrew Davies adapted for the miniseries. See “How closely is Sanditon based on Jane Austen’s original unfinished novel?” and linked essays. I feel after watching the show, that it might be the best of the continuations when it comes to finishing Jane Austen’s book.
If you don’t like Jane Austen, you probably won’t like Sanditon. Regency-era England has social norms and manners that seem silly and very politically incorrect to modern minds, although the TV writers did add some modern feminist insights. There are certain complications in the miniseries that I’m not sure Jane would have approved, but then maybe she would have. If there is a heaven I picture Jane being mobbed by fans asking her about all these adaptations. We assume Jane Austen had to censor herself for her early 19th century audiences, and if she had had more freedom probably would have explored some of the issues that modern adapters have added.