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Sensationalizing Austen

Jane Austen fans are loyal. If something claims an Austen affiliation, we will read it, watch it, or buy it. There are dolls, candles, artwork, coasters, jewelry, mugs, and tote bags. We even have Jane Austen Band-Aids (so her words can literally soothe our injuries). So when PBS produced a series based on Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, they were almost guaranteed an audience. To add further intrigue, the adaptation was written by Andrew Davies, who is responsible for the much-beloved BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. Unfortunately, like the incomplete manuscript, the television series leaves viewers missing Austen’s art.  

Austen’s Unfinished Novel

The novel takes place in Sanditon town, a beachside business venture of a Mr. Parker made possible by patron Lady Denham. Heroine Charlotte Heywood is soon invited as Mr. Parker’s guest to meet the cast of characters. They are a parade of human vices. Arthur Parker is a glutton. The Parker sisters are languid hypochondriacs. And Lady Denham’s “Love of Money is carried greatly too far.”

The characters and themes are not fully developed, as Austen was writing Sanditon the year she died and drafted a mere twelve chapters. (Pride and Prejudice, for example, is sixty-one.) Austen fans, like Miss Taylor and Mr. Knightley at the beginning of Emma, can only wonder at what it would have become. It seems she intended to explore the dangers of romanticism, as Charlotte, the Parkers, and Sir Edward (Lady Denham’s nephew) all exhibit active imaginations.

Austen is not immune to imagination’s charms. After all, who wants to know women who are “dull of Fancy?” They make dreary dinner companions and poor neighbors. For there is little to do in small towns but delight in speculating about the character and conduct of new acquaintances. Like other Austen women, Charlotte finds indulgence and entertainment in her own musings. She initially casts Clara Brereton, Lady Denham’s niece, as the elegant and ill-used heroine. Disappointingly, Clara’s relationship with her aunt proves commonplace and affectionate. But Charlotte readily obliges her observations and alters her ideas accordingly. Her imagination is lively but proper, as it does not mislead or overtake her reason.

The Parkers offer a less virtuous, but still relatively harmless, personification of romanticism. They are, “no doubt, a family of Imagination & quick feelings—and while the eldest Brother found vent for his superfluity of sensation as a Projector, the Sisters were perhaps driven to dissipate theirs in the invention of odd complaints.” The Parker sisters find distinction in feigning fragility. And Mr. Parker is an obsessive enthusiast, blindly driven to make real his mind’s picture of Sanditon.

Yet Austen is not overly critical of her entrepreneur’s imagination. Mr. Parker is extreme in his tendencies (and as a good Aristotelean, Austen favors moderation), but good in his intentions. It is not Mr. Parker, the entrepreneur, but Lady Denham, the uneducated and wealthy aristocrat, who represents greed. She vulgarly boasts of giving her nephew his deceased uncle’s gold watch, though admitting that had always been her husband’s intention.

She is also concerned that building up Sanditon will mean an increase in prices and the standard of living. In response, Mr. Parker remarks, “Our Butchers & Bakers & Traders in general cannot get rich without bringing Prosperity to us—If they do not gain, our rents must be insecure—& in proportion to their profit must be ours eventually in the increased value of our Houses.” This argument for self-interest could have been lifted from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. For “[i]t is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” Mr. Parker believes in the interdependence of the classes and that progress will result in increased wealth for all. His imagination will end up benefiting others.   

Austen offers a portrait of that to which human beings should aspire. Hers is a world of elegance, chivalry, ritual, and excellence. And she dares her readers to expect such things in the common and everyday.

The same is not true of Sir Edward. It is in his character that Austen offers her severest critique of romanticism. He abhors the “prosaic Decencies of Life,” believing that true feeling and grandeur can only be found in an extreme display of human emotion untampered by reason or decorum. His imagination has been inflamed by reading poetry and “sentimental Novels,” causing Charlotte to dismiss him as silly. Yet Austen, like Gustave Flaubert, is conscious of the malice such a seemingly harmless hobby can inculcate. For his “great object in life was to be seductive . . . He felt that he was formed to be a dangerous Man.” In imagining himself to be so, that is indeed what Edward will become. He sets out to seduce and transform the fine Clara Brereton, “to make an impression on her heart, and to undermine her Principles.” Edward’s romanticism puts him on the ruinous path of Henry Crawford. But he manages to escape the punishment of Austen’s pen. For thus ends the manuscript.

However, as Austen disapproves of those who are “dull of Fancy,” it seems only fitting we should speculate on how she would have continued. Jane Austen authors justice and excellence. Her novels very often focus on that “someone in most families privileged by superior abilities or spirits to say anything.” At ten, Emma could answer questions that puzzled her seventeen-year-old sister. Anne Elliot’s judgment exceeds that of everyone in her family. And both women marry men of superior abilities. Early in Austen’s last novel, Charlotte is removed from her family to Sanditon where in all likelihood she would have done the same. This is not because Austen imagines such a fate is the only one for a clever and accomplished woman (she herself went unmarried). It is because marriage is the most important moral choice a person can make, and Austen wants to demonstrate what it means to choose well. Over time, a person’s spouse will impact his or her character in profound ways. So select someone with whom you can trust your own character.          

An Un-Austenian Adaptation

With little to go on, Andrew Davies needed to extrapolate much to form his Sanditon. There is no romantic plotline in the novel. Yet Sidney Parker is described as a “very clever young man” with “superior abilities” and a “neat equipage & fashionable air,” so it seems reasonable Austen would have favored her heroine with his attentions. Theo James, confident in his crisp and perfectly-tailored attire, has the commanding presence of an Austenian gentleman, though Sidney is too quick to anger.

While Davies needed to expand on Austen’s script, it’s curious that he chose to alter the characters she created. Austen’s Charlotte Heyward is a “sober-minded young Lady, sufficiently well-read in Novels to supply her Imagination with amusement, but not at all unreasonably influenced by them,” while her modern theatrical counterpart comes off as naïve and cavalier. Clara Brereton is transformed by Davies into a calculating and mercenary Machiavellian similar to Mary Crawford, though Austen’s description of her is closer to (a more attractive) Fanny Price. Davies thus deviates much from Austen, though few fans will object to Sidney being caught sea bathing by Charlotte (a welcome replication of Colin Firth emerging dripping from a lake only to encounter Elizabeth later).    

In making certain alterations and extrapolations, Sanditon suffers. It becomes a cobbled combination of scenes and characters from other Austen novels. Charlotte encounters Sidney at a ball at the onset of the series and is promptly humiliated by him, reminding Austen fans of the opening of Pride and Prejudice. In a later episode, another character falls and injures himself in the presence of Sidney and Charlotte. They both respond quickly, and the comradery born of an emergency inculcates reciprocal goodwill and respect for calm judgment. Persuasion’s Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth reconcile in the same manner. By stringing together components from various novels, Davies’ work lacks fluidity and cohesion. Austen characters are not all interchangeable.          

Disappointingly, Davies’ alterations also seem calculated to sensationalize Sanditon. Sir Edward is made to share an inappropriate romantic relationship with his stepsister. And Sanditon shocked viewers with multiple sex scenes. Not what we expect when watching an Austen adaptation! Such things occur away from the main plotline or are alluded to in cloaked language. For example, in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price learns of Maria Bertram’s adultery from a letter. And Mary Crawford describes living with her admiral uncle, a man of “vicious conduct,” with a double entendre: “Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” Mary’s comments reveal her character, and providing further detail would be superfluous and detracting. For Austen offers a portrait of that to which human beings should aspire. Hers is a world of elegance, chivalry, ritual, and excellence. And she dares her readers to expect such things in the common and everyday. Davies’ brazenness runs counter to Austen’s objectives. He seeks to entertain rather than to educate. In doing so, he transforms Sanditon into a “sentimental Novel.”   

The show primarily focuses on the romantic relationship between Charlotte and Sidney. Davies lines up a series of misunderstandings between the two, but eventually they fall in love. In this respect, Davies is mimicking Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship. However, Elizabeth comes to love Darcy when she realizes she misjudged his character. As more is revealed to her, she recognizes in him her equal; with Darcy she shares the highest form of friendship coupled with romantic feeling. Davies falls short of achieving the same with Sidney and Charlotte. Sidney is a brooding and mysterious man, and as a consequence, viewers do not get a sense of who he is fundamentally or if he is fitting for Charlotte. Rather, you can surmise that he and Charlotte will fall in love simply because Sanditon is an Austen adaptation, and that is what we expect. Davies replicates Austen’s romantic plotline but misses the underlying philosophy on marriage that animates it.

Fancy has its limitations and dangers, as exemplified by both Davies and Austen. Unfortunately, in his Sanditon series, Andrew Davies’ imagination did not capture the intricacies and craft of Jane Austen. His work is a period drama that lures Austen fans with its title, amuses us with paraphrased lines from the novels, and disappointed many with an unhappy, cliffhanger ending. But Austen fans are loyal. And as he is still the man responsible for the best version of Pride and Prejudice, I will certainly tune in for his next Austen adaptation.