I love period films, but I never could fully enjoy the silk gowns and lace tucks, the country estates and houses in town, and all the high spirits and intrigues that drove excellent historical television and film. Black people were scarce on the high society scene and were often slaves otherwise, so …
Lucky for me, then, PBS is importing an Andrew Davies adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sanditon from ITV, and it starts on Sunday. It is about a fishing town “on that part of the Sussex coast between Hastings and Eastbourne,” as Austen describes it, trying to reinvent itself as a fashionable seaside resort community. One of the best supporting characters is the spirited (aren’t the more interesting young ladies always ‘spirited’ in these things?) Miss Georgiana Lambe, the mixed-race, orphaned, 19-year-old daughter of a plantation owner and his (former, I surely hope) slave in Antigua. Georgiana Lambe is an heiress, poised to inherit a £100,000 fortune. That makes her a sure target for fortune hunters among the baronets and other title holders whose estates could use infusions of money without actually exerting their minds with actual work.
Jane Austen never got the chance to complete Sanditon. She died in July 1817, and only a fragment of a draft survived. Out of her six novels, Austen only made passing references to slavery in the West Indies and how it enriched the British aristocracy in two of them — Mansfield Park and Persuasion. In Sanditon, she gives slavery a bigger share of the conversation from the perspective of Georgiana, whose mother survived it. In Georgiana we see the clash of two cultures, her British father who profited from the enslavement of Africans, and her mother. Georgiana’s identity issues play out in particular in two somewhat painful scenes. The great lady of Sanditon hosts a luncheon in her honor, and Sanditon’s upper classes see her as an exotic import, like the centerpiece pineapple presented there. She is to be carved up by their cutting remarks and served up. In another, Georgiana tries to leave for London, and heads for the coach. The working classes laugh with scorn and incredulity at this Black girl who wants a seat on a coach to London, but cannot pay right away, because she is not accustomed to carrying money. (A Black queen we have here!) Things go worse for Georgiana when she says her banker in London will vouch for her and offer payment. The poor girl is always cornered wherever she goes.
Davies’ scripts often endow the British aristocracy with more moral enlightenment than is realistic, and the pop culture anachronisms sometimes come screaming out. How, for instance, does a mean-spirited dowager who has lived in England all her life become conversant enough in patois to understand Georgiana when she switches into that dialect for one of her put downs?
Georgiana stands up to the hostile old witch, but so much battling in a place that is supposed to be genteel does take its toll, as you can imagine. One scene finds Georgiana on a solitary walk along the bluffs, missing home and unable to find her footing in Sanditon. The setting vaguely echoed the story of Lovers Leap in Jamaica, because Georgiana’s guardian Mr. Sidney Parker removed her from London to get her away from an “unsuitable match.” I didn’t fear that Georgiana would harm herself, but her moment of sadness and loneliness opens the door for her to make friends with Charlotte Heywood, whose romance is the main one.
Davies makes my eyes roll sometimes with how much modern virtue he bestows on old British aristocrats, and he does that here. The script does deliver, however, on Austen’s musings about the economic and societal changes coming to the early 19th century, and you don’t need to see slave owners through rose glasses to do that. Not only is there a wealthy Black foreigner in Sanditon, but also an ambitious young urban planner before urban planning was a thing, and a German doctor with a strange new invention called a shower bath.
Let’s take a minute to talk about Georgiana’s guardian, Mr. Sidney Parker. The story shameless draws many parallels to Mr. Darcy. Actually, he’s an amped up Mr. Darcy, without the wealth. He is mightily good looking. He broods better than Jon Snow. He judges and chastises. At a certain point, I really wondered if he and the main female character, Charlotte Heywood, actually had the spark and chemistry to carry this off. They dislike each other initially, and often miscommunicate in the beginning, but in the first three episodes that I’ve seen, they forgot to deliver that undercurrent of attraction. Charlotte is unlike our Lizzie Bennet, who, though she was not formed for malice, never sought as many people’s good opinion as our Charlotte Heywood seems to do for a ‘spirited’ girl away from home. Their sparks were turning into a cropping of fireflies, until the producers had Charlotte happen upon Mr. Parker’s ‘casual swim’, which was on a whole different level from Colin Firth’s white clingy shirt. You see in Sanditon, the gentlemen sea bathe in the nude. Our Charlotte got the full monty, and having been visually deflowered, I guess she is our future Mrs. Sidney Parker. That’s the thing: their love story feels almost like a procedural inevitability. We never caught Mr. Parker eyeing up Charlotte and we never heard Charlotte bitching about him to Georgiana.
Sanditon is a story of New World changes beginning to lap at the shores of the Old World, and while Georgiana is not the main heroine, her strong attachment to a free Black man in London, seen in the closing scene of episode three, is sure to set off fireworks in this small town.
Quick shoutout: Mr. Otis Molineux, Georgiana’s love interest, who proves to be a type of Mr. Wickham. He turns out to be a gamester who gambles with Georgiana’s safety, but at least he has genuine remorse for how his actions affect Georgiana. It’s too bad Georgiana and Otis don’t make it. You don’t often see Black couples go the distance (or at all) in high-profile period pieces. But that’s a topic for another day.