The beautiful and well-wrought PBS Masterpiece miniseries Sanditon has an infuriating ending. Originally a production for the U.K.’s iTV, Sanditon is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s last, unfinished novel. It’s a story about a young woman named Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) who leaves her small, sheltered home to stay with friends in an up-and-coming seaside resort town. Sanditon introduces a delicious cast of supporting characters, including Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), the first significant person of color in an Austen work, and Miss Lambe’s incredibly hunky caretaker, Sidney Parker (Theo James).
By the end of Sanditon, Sidney and Charlotte are destined to fall in love and get married. Except in the final episode of the series … they do not. Sidney’s brother’s new building project burns down in a terrible fire, all of Sanditon becomes financially uncertain, and Sidney has to marry a rich heiress in order to save his family. It is not the ending any Austen fan would’ve expected and hoped for.
It was also not the ending Sanditon’s creators wanted for the show. In a conversation about the series, producer Belinda Campbell explains the original vision for Sanditon, and promises that if they ever have a chance to make a second series, the end will be very, very different.
Can you tell me a little about the extra challenge of adapting Sanditon? Unlike all the best-known Austen novels, this one was unfinished.
And let’s be honest, it was a first draft as well. She’d been writing it for a matter of weeks before she became too ill to continue. The famous [novels] she took years to write and deliver to the world, and I think they were published quite a long time after she started them. This is a very raw form, so it’s a monumental challenge and [producer and writer] Andrew Davies is the only person that could’ve got away with doing it.
Because the world was so fully realized, in spite of the fact that it was a first draft and she’d only gotten 11 chapters in, it was such a delicious proposition. She wasn’t writing about country gentry. She was writing about a new wave of entrepreneurs, so it’s like “wow — this is Jane Austen, but not as you know it.” It’s an entirely fresh potential, and it felt too delicious to not give it a go.
Did you look at the way other authors have tried to finish Sanditon? Did the fact that it was unfinished give you a sense of flexibility you might not otherwise have in an adaptation?
Andrew [Davies] had said that he deliberately didn’t read any of the other finished versions because he didn’t want them to cloud what he wanted to do with it. But the characters were so boldly presented in that fragment [Austen] wrote, and all story is character. With the exception of Charlotte, who was a bit of a blank page — she’s just sort of a nice girl who’s coming to town, and it’s quite difficult to see what the potential of that character was. But we were very governed by what was in the book, while at the same time having the freedom to interpret it as well and to take it into new directions. For example, Clara [Lily Sacofsky], the fact that she appears to be so innocent is actually a cover for someone who’s much more wily.
It seems like it’d be a challenge to be caught between the version you want to finish and an imagined version of what Austen might’ve written.
With Austen, it’s a monumental challenge. She is much loved and entirely unique. We tried our very best to be faithful to what an Austen novel was. What do all Austen books contain? They contain love stories, they contain stories about women who are put in challenging situations who find ways around them. They’re about social commentary. She’s poking fun at various players. Normally it’s about landed gentry, but in this case it’s, “what would she have to say about a bunch of entrepreneurs and hypochondriacs?” We tried very hard and were very clear-sighted about the rules of Jane Austen and her main themes, and tried to make sure we delivered on that.
It was knowingly a fresh take. But Sanditon is a fresh world and written at such a different time in British society. You had Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein, you had Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. There were lots of ideas and scenes coming into the fore that hadn’t previously been there. So why would [Austen] have stuck in the same mode she was in 20 years before? So we were loyal, but also trying to be bold.
I was surprised to learn that the Miss Lambe character, who is black in your adaptation, was also written as a person of color in Austen’s text — Austen describes her as “mulatto.” She’s the first person of color with any kind of significant role in an Austen novel.
She’s one of the first characters of her kind in any English literature. It was a departure, and you can sense the rebellious spirit in her writing.
How did you think about building Miss Lambe’s arc in the show? She’s introduced in the Austen text but not given much development.
She’s described as “chilly and tender,” which we think means that she was sick, so she was brought to the sea to take the airs. A lot of it is inference. If you look at Mansfield Park and the things Austen writes about the slave trade, a lot of it is between the lines, but clearly she was against the slave trade, clearly she was an abolitionist. Clearly she had things to say about roles and responsibilities. From that, we did a lot of research into Jane Austen herself. Some of the qualities of Charlotte were based on Jane Austen — somebody who didn’t particularly want to get married, and who saw marriage as something that could limit her.
Similarly, we thought if Jane Austen’s position was anti-slavery, then this character could be feisty and independent and, without wanting to be too woke about it, we wanted Georgiana Lambe to be an interesting character in her own right. Given the fact that she was young, and rich, and everybody wanted her money, how could you do something interesting with all that? To make her Sidney’s ward, to give him some responsibility, to make her a little bit tricky, it makes her into more than a token character. She’s three-dimensional, and she struggles with the position she has in life. She misses the freedom she has at home.
Given the fact that having a person of color is quite a rare thing in literature at this time, we wanted to give her agency, we wanted to give her power and strength. But we wanted to make her real as well.
Can we talk about the end?
Yes, there appears to be quite a lot of trauma! For which we feel, obviously, devastated — that people are devastated! Look, the truth is, very honestly and very simply, that we had an unfinished Austen and we wanted to continue the story. It’s called Sanditon; it’s about the town. Our thought process was, “let’s tell this story, but let’s tell the story of the town as well, so let’s see if we can turn it into a returning Jane Austen series.” So we don’t necessarily have to finish everything in that [first season].
It’s the only Jane Austen out there where you can take it beyond the one arc. It was designed to be the midpoint of Sidney and Charlotte’s story. That being said, the series is also designed so that it works as a self-contained story. Every story has an ending, some of them have an absolute ending, some have an ending that could be continued. It was the midpoint, and the next challenge was to come.
Could a second season still happen?
We’ve always said, and iTV has also said that they would like to see it get picked up and carried on elsewhere. But the truth is, it just didn’t get the numbers high enough. So were it to continue, we would need a new partner. Which is why the U.S. figures matter, because if it does well and people love it, then these things can happen.
Please just reassure me that if you ever did somehow get a second season, Charlotte and Sidney would get together.
Absolutely! We’re not that perverse!
I know this wasn’t the end that you were intending, but it occurred to me that it is really interesting to have a version of a Jane Austen story that ends with something so radically different than in a familiar Austen arc. Is there any version of you that is sort of happy this is the ending Sanditon got?
Another way to look at it is, both Charlotte and Sidney have very subtle arcs in this season where, over eight episodes, they change. Sidney comes to Sanditon where he sees all of his responsibilities as an infringement of his rights to live a life of variety. By the end of the series, he has absolutely acknowledged his role and his responsibility. And it is historically the case that people have to marry for money. That is something that happened. Whilst it might not be a Jane Austen ending, it is the reality of how many love stories would’ve ended. So there is a complete story arc there.
And likewise for Charlotte, who comes to Sanditon to get married, she has a coming-of-age story about growing up and seeing the world for what it is. Including that it involves pain, loss and sacrifice. So there is that ending.
But no, I take no satisfaction after the fact that a lot of people want that happily ever after. And we would love the opportunity to give it to them. Of course Sidney is going to find a way around it! He’s our hero!
Plus, he was naked, in the ocean! You can’t give me a naked sea-bathing Austen hero and then not have that work out!
And you know what, [Theo James, who plays Sidney] did that in February.