A Jane Austen story is all about muslin and satin dresses, flower-bedecked bonnets, pretty countryside, upscale British wit, and chaste (at least as far as what we see) romance. Right?
If you're talking about Sanditon, premiering Sunday, Jan 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS' Masterpiece, the answer is yes on the first three, sorta on the fourth, and not completely on the last.
When she died at the age of 41 in 1817, Jane Austen had written 11 chapters of what was to be her final book, called Sanditon (you can read it here). Now, Britain's ITV and PBS' Masterpiece have attempted to finish her work, with the help of writer Andrew Davies, who's adapted four of Austen's seven novels, including the BBC and A&E's wildly successful miniseries version of Pride & Prejudice. Official site is here.
Set during the Regency period between 1790 and 1820, Sanditon takes Austen's characters and settings and extrapolates them into an eight-hour series. Set in the up-and-coming seaside resort of Sanditon, it follows country girl Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) as she moves among the townspeople, tourists and entrepreneurs of Sanditon, including the darkly brooding Sidney Parker (Theo James) and his charge, the wealthy West Indian heiress Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke).
Of course, Charlotte crosses the path of Sidney, and that back-and-forth -- entirely innocent as it is -- takes up a lot of the drama in Sanditon. Unlike a lot of other Austen works, this one is not about landed gentry and country parsons, etc., but about people of business, striving to create a new resort on a picturesque patch of British beach. So, the struggles of Sidney's brother (Kris Marshall) to get Sanditon up and running -- and the comic misadventures of his reportedly sickly but apparently robust other brother and sister (Turlough Convery, Alexandra Roach) -- occupy another large chunk.
Then there's Miss Lambe, the acknowledged daughter of a slave master and a slave from the West Indies, who's now come into a considerable fortune. She is the target of some racism -- primarily from Sanditon's chief backer, the rich and imperious widow Lady Denham (Anne Reid) -- but because of her money, she's also a sought-after marital prize. That takes her down some perilous paths, but she can always count on new pal Charlotte to come to her aid.
The rest of Lady Denham's family consists of her nephew Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and his stepsister Esther (Charlotte Spencer); and Clara (Lily Sacofsky), a niece from Lady Denham's side of the family and her live-in companion. They are all odds over the question of to whom Lady Denham will leave her money -- which she retained control of after her marriage to Lord Denham.
It's in this circle that Sanditon takes its biggest departure from Austen. (Those who don't want spoilers should depart now.) Not only is there an -- albeit chaste -- romance between Edward and Esther, but Edward and Clara consummate a sudden burst of passion on the floor. Though the characters remain mostly clothed, it is explicit what they're doing.
Also, the gentlemen of Sanditon decide to bathe naked in the sea (the women remain in elaborate bathing costumes), so there are flashes of male nudity from the back. (According to a learned commenter, bathing naked for men was common in that era, but how much to show of that is up to the producers' discretion.)
And, at one point, Charlotte wanders through a sketchy part of London where tawdry things are happening in the background, and you can see it if you know what you're looking at.
This isn't at all unusual in TV today, but it is a sharp left turn from how Austen wrote her stories and the most successful adaptations of them.
Also, while watching BBC's Pride & Prejudice, for example, and having read the book, it became obvious when the show was using Austen's dialogue and when Davies had to add in scenes. It's ironic to say about a sheltered, not professionally educated woman who died in 1817, but Austen was a better and snappier dialogue writer than many screenwriters today. Davies' additions are perfectly serviceable, but they lack the crackle and wit of Austen.
Since Sanditon the novel was barely begun, that's an issue for the adaptation.
At a press conference for Sanditon at the biannual TV Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles, Davies said:
In fact, Jane Austen's material, I used up in the first half of the first episode with seven-and-a-half episodes to go. So I had to make up a lot of stuff with the help of my brilliant colleagues.
So, the dialogue is fine, but it doesn't have Austen's archness and sparkle.
It's possible that these departures contributed to Sanditon not exactly wowing over British audiences.
ITV has announced that it's not doing a second season, but Davies is hopeful.
At the same event, Davies said:
And especially once we got these wonderful actors, we fed off their energy and their intelligence and their wonderful performances, and we are hoping certainly to do at least a second series and perhaps many more. It will become the next "Downton," maybe.
It'll be interesting to see what serious Austen devotees have to say, or if all that American audiences want are the trappings, which Sanditon has in abundance.
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager and blog editor at Family Theater Productions.