[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for “Sanditon,” including the ending.]
It was winter when Jane Austen realized she was dying. In January 1817, she started her final novel, a comedic tale set in a fledgling seaside resort whose owners have ambitions to attract moneyed clientele from London and beyond. In March, she stopped writing, carefully noting the date: March 18, 1817.
In July — four months to the day after she wrote those last words — she died. Scholars still don’t know the cause, with speculation ranging from Addison’s disease to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Austen was 41.
It’s easy to psychoanalyze that unfinished novel, “Sanditon.” Austen was ill, she wanted to escape to the shore — so she did in her writing. Her heroine, Charlotte Heywood, dreams of a more cosmopolitan place than her genteel-but-shabby country home packed with siblings, and an act of quick-thinking bravery earns her an invite to the seaside Sanditon to stay with the Parker family.
The 11 chapters completed by Austen makes up the first hour of “Sanditon” that will air over eight one-hour episodes on PBS’s Masterpiece. You’ll know exactly when the story transitions from Austen’s writing to that of her frequent adapter Andrew Davies because, frankly, Jane Austen never would write a scene that involves the heroine stumbling upon two people in a very compromising situation in a field.
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This is definitely a sexed up TV version of courtship in Regency England. Among his numerous other adaptations, executive producer Davies also wrote the BBC version of “Pride & Prejudice” in 1995 — yes, the one with wet Colin Firth emerging after swimming in a lake for no other reason than the world really, truly needed to see wet Colin Firth emerging swimming in a lake. This take on “Sandition” first aired on ITV last summer in the U.K., and attracted a fair amount of pearl-clutching from traditionalists aghast at frequent allusions to, well, sex.
Let’s put aside period-appropriate mores for a moment and the hagiography of the original text. The spirit of “Sanditon” is beachy escapism, and this version offers a swoony take that should enrapture modern audiences.
Rose Williams plays the aforementioned Charlotte Heywood and checks all the Austen heroine boxes: well-bred but not wealthy, spirited, brunette, some people think she talks more than she should, but none of those people exist outside of the other most-wretched characters in the book. She moves to Sanditon as a companion to the Parker family; patriarch Tom (Kris Marshall) has grand plans of turning the slightly shabby seaside resort into a glamorous vacation spot. He’s aided in this endeavor by the deep pockets of Lady Denham (the iconic Anne Reid), an imperious investor who demands fealty as much as returns on her real estate.
The other denizens of Sanditon include Lady Denham’s various lowlife hangers-on; tradespeople working on rehabbing the town; and assorted other Parker relatives, including, thank God, Tom Parker’s brooding brother Sidney (Theo James).
James is an executive producer as well, and it’s a consistent joy to see how much fun he’s having playing Sidney in full Byronic mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know mode. The interplay between him and Williams is a delight as it adopts, subverts, and inverts the typical rom-com tropes: They hate each other because he thinks she’s a silly, useless, naive little thing! Oh wait, that was a huge misunderstanding. They hate each other because she thinks he’s a racist pig! Oh wait, that was a huge misunderstanding. They hate each other until she catches him walking naked out of the ocean after a swim! Oh wait, there’s no misunderstanding that. (Much credit to James for doubling down on that infamous Firth scene. The words “Jane Austen” and “NSFW” perhaps have never co-existed in the same sentence until now.)
But Austen wouldn’t be Austen if it were all flirting at dances — and much credit to costume designer Sam Perry, choreographer Sammy Murray, and production designer Grant Montgomery for making those balls so enchanting — and no societal commentary. One character barely touched on in Austen’s unfinished work is Miss Lambe, described as a “young West Indian of large fortune” and thereby making her a very, very, very rare person of color in the writer’s work.
Portrayed by Crystal Clarke in this version, Miss Lambe’s subplot is one of the reasons “Sanditon” is so tempting for others to complete. The very modern exploration of intersectionality is painful to watch — Miss Lambe is other-ed not only for being young and female, but also as a person of color, and rich in a town full of grasping schemers — and her dramatic turns over eight episodes hit hard as a result. It is a credit to Clarke’s performance that what could otherwise read as “Perils of Pauline”-style melodrama comes across as heart-rending.
Speaking of heart-rending, Davies throws out the one cardinal Austen rule with the finale of “Sandition”: There is no happy ending. Is it not enough that these women are oppressed by looming poverty, lack of germ theory, terrible relatives, and backassward societal expectations? For Austen, it was. For Davies, it is not. The first time I heard of “Sanditon” was on Twitter the night the finale aired in the U.K.; no exaggeration, there was more foaming at the mouth over Sidney riding off into the sunset without Charlotte than there was for Brexit.
But in a way, it makes perfect sense. Austen left her work unfinished. And by denying the traditional happy ending to Charlotte and Sidney, Davies does the same with his.
ITV recently announced in an interview with Radio Times that “Sanditon” would not be greenlit for a second season, but that, according to the network: “‘Sanditon’ is yet to air in the U.S. and we hope they may find a way of continuing with this series.” In a separate interview, Davies said: “And in fact the way we end series one, I hope we then get to a point where an audience says, ‘You can’t leave it at that!’”
So get on it, my fellow Americans. Watch it. “Sanditon” is sexy escapism for winter, tart and political, gorgeous and honest.
Austen would have loved it.
Starting Sunday, Jan. 12, “Sanditon” will air Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on PBS’ Masterpiece; subscribers to PBS Passport can watch all eight episodes the night of the premiere.