In the vein of Downton Abbey, Jane Austen’s beloved but unfinished masterpiece-often considered her most modern and exciting novel-gets a spectacular second act in this tie-in to a major new limited television series.
Written only months before Austen’s death in 1817, Sanditon tells the story of the joyously impulsive, spirited and unconventional Charlotte Heywood and her spiky relationship with the humorous, charming (and slightly wild!) Sidney Parker. When a chance accident transports her from her rural hometown of Willingden to the would-be coastal resort of the eponymous title, it exposes Charlotte to the intrigues and dalliances of a seaside town on the make, and the characters whose fortunes depend on its commercial success. The twists and turns of the plot, which takes viewers from the West Indies to the rotting alleys of London, exposes the hidden agendas of each character and sees Charlotte discover herself… and ultimately find love.
Kate Riordan is a writer and journalist from England. Her first job was as an editorial assistant at the Guardian newspaper, followed by a stint as deputy editor for the lifestyle section of London bible, Time Out magazine. There she had assignments that saw her racing reindeers in Lapland, going undercover in London’s premier department store and gleaning writing tips (none-too subtly) during interviews with some of her favorite authors. After becoming a freelancer, she left London behind and moved to the beautiful Cotswolds in order to write her first novel.
When Jane Austen died, she left behind six completed novels (four published) and fragments of several more, including the beginning of Sanditon, a novel about a young woman visiting an up-and-coming resort town. Only about sixty pages exist, several of them more in the vein of “plot-bunny problems for Future Jane to solve later,” definitely not enough to determine Austen’s intention for the resolution of the plot but just enough to establish her cast of characters: Miss Charlotte Heywood, the many Parkers, Lady Denham and her household, and Miss Lambe.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and Sanditon has been adapted as an eight-part television series airing in the US on PBS January 12 – February 23, 2020. Screenwriter Andrew Davies – responsible for Colin Firth’s wet-shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice (at the very least) – took on the task of fleshing out Austen’s world of seaside resorts and invalids and creating a plot where not had existed. And it is a very pretty adaptation, with lovely costumes and beautiful British actors (oh, hello, Theo James). It is a very sexy adaptation, too, which is to be expected in a Davies adaptation and it, uh, goes rather beyond wet shirts. There’s a gorgeous companion book in the vein of the Downton Abbey tie-ins that looks behind the scenes of the show (this show is totally Regency era catnip for Downton Abbey fans). I haven’t watched more than the first few episodes of the show because I finished the novelization by Kate Riordan.
And I didn’t like the ending.
Now. I had also prepped for this release by re-reading Austen’s original fragment (I have multiple editions of her fragments and juvenilia but the Penguin Classics edition that includes The Watsons and Lady Susan is the most readable, in my opinion). So I had Austen’s sentence structure and style fresh in my mind when I started Kate Riordan’s adaptation of Andrew Davies script. The two styles do not mesh well in my mind. Modern prose is very prescriptive, telling you what characters are touching and doing as if describing a movie scene to the reader. In addition, this adaptation and novelization is rather…earthy. Austen would have known all about sex and what people get up to when alone (she was a Georgian, not a Victorian, and spent more than enough of her time helping her sisters-in-law during their confinements) but she certainly wouldn’t have put it on the page, even as a fade-to-black scene. So it was a bit jarring.
Then there’s the ending. I’m not going to totally spoil it, but quit reading now if you want to finish out either the show or the novel without a whiff of spoilage. So. If one is a show runner, who wants to keep Sanditon going for more than one season, you go for this ending. Look at the mileage Downton Abbey got for three seasons with the will-they-won’t-they antagonism of Mary and Matthew. If one is a reader who reads Austen extensively, owns multiple editions of her novels, and regularly imbibes Regency romance novels? This ending is so unsatisfying. I sincerely hope the show gets second season pickup because I can’t believe this is where Austen would have left her characters. (Well, to be honest, she wouldn’t have put some of them in some of these situations in the first place, in my opinion.)
Verdict? Enjoy the TV show but don’t re-read Austen’s original right before reading the novelization.
I’m participating in a blog tour organized by Lauren Ann of Austenprose! Visit her site to read Laurel Ann’s review of Sanditon and find a list of other bloggers featuring Sanditon on their pages. Thanks Laurel Ann for the review opportunity!
Dear FTC: I received finished copies of Sanditon and The World of Sanditon from the publisher for participating in the blog tour.