Crystal Clarke as the intriguing but so-far underused Miss LambeSimon Ridgway

Content Note: This article contains discussion of sexual assault

Sad haters and chronic missers-of-the-point like to say that Austen’s frocks-snark-marriage plotlines make her boring and predictable. There’s far more to Jane than bonnets, awkward quadrilles and ‘ten thousand a year’, but there’s also a whole lot going on with those bonnets! This is someone who centred a whole mystery and secret illicit romance around a random piano. Initially trivial details rarely end up so.

Charlotte Heywood and Mrs Parker (Kate Ashfield) avoid soaking up the raysITV

But Sanditon isn’t quite like other Austen novels. It starts as you might expect: a wide-eyed heroine, Charlotte Heywood, (Rose Williams, acting a bit like Harry Potter whenever he says ‘magic’ in one of the films) goes out into the world, this time to the up-and-coming but morally suspect seaside resort of Sanditon.

Brought along by country squire-turned-entrepreneur Mr Parker (Kris Marshall) and his wife Mary, Charlotte quickly spots his hot-but-moody brother Sidney (Theo James), who’s come down to assist with an all-important ball to promote Sanditon as a fashionable destination for the upper classes.

Yet that’s pretty much where, canonically, the story ends. Its author died four months after abandoning it, unfinished, in March 1817. For once in Austen, we get the treat of not knowing quite what is going to happen. So far, unfortunately, Andrew Davies isn’t doing a great job of filling in the gaps.

Somehow, the acclaimed screenwriter of the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice manages to make our first slice of the Austen unknown clichéd and predictable. Austen fans know the heroine has to meet a handsome other man; superficially more charming than the awkward, disdainful Mr Darcys, their apparent openness really points to their oily duplicity.

“The explicit twist has no real point – sinister sex is used cynically for titillation and tweets”

Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox) emerges as Sanditon’s Mr Wickham, the admittedly handsome but shifty relation of scene-stealing matriarch Lady Denham (Coronation Street’s Anne Reid). Instead of slowly cottoning on, the heroine is whacked on the head with a full-on dose of the creeps. Sir Edward waltzes into the scene rambling leerily to the innocent Charlotte about ‘naked limbs’.

I don’t have much insight into what a single man in possession of a good fortune really wants, but when it turns out it’s dubious sexual favours in the woods (the viewpoint makes it unclear if consent is given), the explicit and potentially sinister plot twist doesn’t give you the surprise you’d expect in an Austen context. It actually just makes you viscerally uncomfortable.

ClaraITV

There’s been a lot of talk about the male nudity in this production, but frankly, I’m over it. Three white bums on the beach does not a progressive production make. Davies tries to combine the shock value of bringing overt sexuality to traditionally chocolate-box drama (though by now, this tendency is a tradition of its own) with the twist of making the villain an obvious one from the start. He just can’t have it both ways. I can only hope the real twist won’t be that Clara (Lily Sacofsky), who has possibly experienced sexual assault, is actually lying about the encounter, and Sir Edward turns out to be ‘just’ a creep, not an abuser. Who really thought TV needed another narrative about how women aren’t to be trusted about their own bodies?

I hope this production isn’t that cheap. There could have been a good point in there somewhere about the reality of the past for women enduring these potential assaults if the ambiguous scene weren’t uncomfortably played for titillation and tweets.


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While the aloof eligibility of Sidney Parker is made painfully obvious to us (his sister openly tells a stranger she’d like to ‘get him settled’ but that he’d had ‘bad experiences’ with women), it’s only the first episode. Sanditon is still capable of delivering a few surprises.

Later on, at the ball, we are briefly introduced to Austen’s only character of colour (ambiguous in her draft), West Indian heiress and ward of Sidney Miss Georgiana Lambe. Actress Crystal Clarke was excellent in period piece Ordeal by Innocence last Easter, so in future episodes we need to see that her talent isn’t wasted.

So far Sanditon is disappointing, but it’s far from a dead loss. I’ll be sticking around to see, for once, a brand new ending for Austen.

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