While watching PBS with my son one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I saw an advertisement for a new series on Masterpiece: Sanditon. I was familiar with this unfinished Jane Austen book in name only, but I was interested to see what screenwriter Andrew Davies had done with it. It could be interesting, since he had written the popular adaptation of Pride & Prejudice from 1995, plus my favorite adaptations of Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. A look at my movie shelves showed me that he also adapted Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives & Daughters and Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right. I set Sanditon to record on our DVR, but decided that I needed to read Jane Austen’s story before watching.
Years ago I bought a book with three of Austen’s unfinished and unpublished books. Sanditon only takes up about sixty pages of the book. Being familiar with films based on her works, it wasn’t hard to see that what she was able to complete before her death would only fill one episode of a mini-series, at most. A potential love interest for the protagonist isn’t introduced until the second-to-last page. I became apprehensive for the television series.
A little bit of research showed me that Davies planned not just a mini-series for Sanditon, but an actual recurring series with eight episodes in the first season. Eight or more episodes from only sixty pages. I was nervous.
The first twenty minutes of the first episode were enjoyable. But I was right: Austen’s unfinished story took up less than the fifty minutes of that first night. Davies took some liberties with the material that didn’t sit right with me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep watching, but we had one more episode recorded. Maybe it would get better. But I told my husband that if I didn’t like the second episode, I wouldn’t keep watching.
The first problem with this show: Andrew Davies was working from a first draft. As a writer, I know that most writers don’t want anyone reading their first draft, let alone basing a television series on it. Because Austen never completed this book, we don’t know where the story would have gone in her hands. Because she never had a chance to make revisions, we don’t know what she would have changed. I don’t pretend to know much about Jane Austen’s writing methods, but from a writer’s perspective, no story comes out exactly the way you want it the first time. Would Austen have completed this story if she had lived? After all, The Watsons was started years before and she never fully pursued it. I realized with Sanditon that Andrew Davies does an excellent job adapting Jane Austen novels when he has the complete story to work from. When given only a fragment, he doesn’t really know Jane Austen at all.
Which leads me to the second problem I see with this series: it is not Jane Austen’s story or style. Though we don’t know how Austen intended for this story to end, we do know how her six published novels played out. Certain types of action happened on-stage, while others did not. I wasn’t the only viewer to be unsettled by the amount of sex portrayed on the screen. It’s true that Austen writes that one character’s goal is to seduce and ruin the reputation of a woman but, again, would that have made it into the final draft? If it did, Austen likely wouldn’t have shown it. In Mansfield Park, the seduction of Miss Bertram happens off-stage. When Willoughby seduces Miss Williams, it happens off-stage. Lydia Bennet’s elopement happens off-stage. There is a propriety in Austen’s novels that can’t be ignored. The actions of these characters had serious moral and societal consequences. Lady Catherine De Bourgh didn’t turn a blind eye to impropriety as Lady Denham does in Sanditon.
But the sexuality of Sanditon isn’t my only issue. Jane Austen wrote strong female characters, but in Charlotte Heywood we see a feminist of the twenty-first century variety. Where Ann Elliot takes charge when her nephew dislocates his shoulder by sending for the apothecary and comforting her family, Charlotte helps to repair a bloody and broken leg without getting a drop of blood on her white dress. She helps to make architectural plans and regularly visits a dangerous construction site. One of the interesting things about reading Jane Austen’s books is seeing how women showed their strength and independence while living in the time they did. That’s not what we’re seeing here. Andrew Davies seems to want to tell a twenty-first centurystory while using Jane Austen’s creation to do it.
That is my third problem: the desire of writers and artists to capitalize on the name of Jane Austen to sell their product. This series takes an unfinished fragment, ignores Austen’s voice and style, and promotes itself as a Jane Austen masterpiece, all for the sake of gaining viewers. In defending the sexual nature of the show, some cast members have pointed out that not everyone living two hundred years ago lived a chaste life. Andrew Davies was free to write a historical romance and add as much “realism” as he liked, but by using Jane Austen’s name and characters, I get the impression that he didn’t have enough confidence in his own name to come up with something completely original.
I confess that I have played around with my own ideas of updating Sense & Sensibility, but I could never get it to work the way I wanted it to and abandoned the idea. I would never have been able to do justice to Jane Austen’s voice and abilities and anything I attempted would be a pale imitation. She deserves better than that. I have since decided that it isn’t right to try to make money off of someone else’s name—especially someone who worked hard to produce the writing that she did and still ended her life in anything but affluence.
We watched episode two and I spent most of the time shaking my head. This was not Jane Austen. Seeing a preview for episode three made it clear: I was done watching.
I don’t regret my decision. If I want to enjoy a good Jane Austen story, I can reread her own words or watch one of the many adaptations based on one of her completed works. Many screenwriters have found the ability to be true to Jane Austen’s voice and story while also infusing something new, fresh, and relatable for our time. This devout reader of Jane Austen rejects Sanditon as one of them.