This week I wanted to write about Sanditon, the TV version of Jane Austen’s novel, most particularly the love story between Sidney and Charlotte.
There are many intertwined plots in Sanditon, all of which are interesting (though, to misquote Mr Darcy, not interesting enough to tempt me), but the central plot, the ‘love story’ between Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker, is disappointing. At the end of tonight’s episode, Sidney told Charlotte that he was his ‘best self’ when he was with her – blurg, and it looks like they will, eventually get together. But I wish they wouldn’t. I wish that it could all have ended so differently.
I wish that Davies had jumped off from Austen’s oeuvre and explored the possibility that, thanks to the industrial revolution, during the early 19th century society was changing in ways that would shake up the ruling social class’s place at the top. I wish he’d explored the possibility that a girl like Charlotte Heywood might eschew a husband from the landed gentry in favour of someone like Young Stringer whose intelligence and tenacity make him a far worthier and, in the 19th century, more relevant husband than Sidney Parker.
Only 40 years after Austen died, Jane Eyre appeared, and 7 years after that, North and South was published, both of which explored changes brought about by the industrial revolution. North and South explicitly explores the differences between the industrial north and the rural south of England, with the heroine, Margaret Hale choosing the hard graft of industry over the comfort of a rural idyll.
Austen might not have been interested in industry and the changes in society – she was, after all, conservative with a small ‘c’. But she would have been aware of it, particularly as (according to Wikipedia) it ‘began’ in the 1760s and ‘finished’ between around 1820 and 1840 – Austen died in 1817.
Austen’s novels are set in hermetically sealed social enclaves, focused in the almost-monied middle classes, but there are hints at life beyond: the militia in Pride and Prejudice, naval officers in Persuasion and the slave trade in Mansfield Park. It is possible that in Sanditon, she could have explored social change, that a man might educate and work himself into wealth, that a once-poor man might catch himself a worthwhile wife.
The problem with Sanditon may be nothing to do with its failure to explore social change. It could be the fault of casting and directing – Theo James is undeniably fit but there’s something anachronistic about his Sidney Parker – he has neither the stiff upper lipped-ness of Darcy or Captain Wentworth, nor the brotherly affection of Edmund Bertram. The same is true of Rose Williams – her Charlotte Heywood spends a lot of time looking girlishly puzzled but she has neither the confident charisma of Elizabeth Bennett nor the infuriating gaucheness of Fanny Price. Both Heywood and Parker are too rounded. Too modern. And while this might bring Austen ‘up to date’ it makes it more difficult for the viewer to suspend their belief in a rigid social world where everyone apparently knows their place, where a woman’s happiness might depend entirely upon her making a good marriage.
One senses that Heywood neither needs or wants to get married (and, indeed seems far too young to be contemplating marriage) and that Parker has no thoughts at all of marriage. The pair’s lack of on-screen chemistry suggests that neither has a burning passion for the other.
It would have been so much better if Andrew Davies, having taken the time to create and cast the character of Young Stringer, who seems like he’s actually from the eighteenth century (rather than having wandered in from 2019), had allowed him to work his way into wealth (because, generally, in Austenland, a happy ending requires a husband to have a half-decent living) and win Charlotte’s heart. Sidney could then have gone off and marry Mrs Campion (having first been rejected by Charlotte for being too stuffy, or too rude, or too beardy-weirdy – I get what the rowing scene was meant to symbolise, but, really? A man takes you rowing, puts his hands all over you and then lets his ex-girlfriend put you down in public? As Liz Lemon would say, that’s a Deal Breaker), lost all of their joint wealth in a freak mis-investment whilst Charlotte and Young lived happily ever after in a self-designed mansion that sits atop the Sanditon cliffs, from where Young can look down and watch Tom Parker’s enterprise slowly crumble. Then Young and Charlotte could romp in to save the town from penury with their own successful investment schemes (like Margaret Hale, they would invest in a mill or something else further up north).
Though, of course, I have loved Theo James since his Divergent days, I think in this case, it’s a shame that he gets the girl.
It is very hard to write a good romance. Pride and Prejudice is near perfect, but I think that’s because Darcy and Elizabeth articulate their feelings in such detail we can never quite grasp or believe their veracity – for me, there will always be a question around whether Elizabeth truly ‘loves’ Darcy or if, as she says, she loves him because he’s so rich, she’d be an idiot not to. I wish that rather than playing around so badly with Austen, ITV had bought a great Georgette Heyer. Andrew Davies could have made a masterpiece out of The Grand Sophy or Frederica or any of Heyer’s excellent romances.