This is such a treat of a review for me today – I’m so grateful to Grand Central Publishing for gifting me a copy of Sanditon to read and review to coincide with its release in the US on PBS. Did you catch the first episode on Sunday? I have a confession to make: although I’m now based in the US, I managed to catch Sanditon on UK television before I left… and you’re in for a treat. Andrew Davies has done a fantastic job: Sanditon is exciting, thought-provoking, entertaining and dramatic – all the things I think Jane Austen was pushing for in those first twelve chapters she drafted.
And, not only has Andrew Davies done a fantastic job, but so has Kate Riordan in her novelisation of the TV series. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give away any spoilers as episode 1 has only just aired – but what Riordan has done has conveyed the spirit of Austen’s characters (and the storylines crafted by Davies) onto the page of her book. You may first watch and read Sanditon and think that the scandal shown is incongruous to Austen, but the direct address of colonialism, empire and slavery, hedonism, the place of women and issues of social class were alluded to in the Austen-penned beginning.
We begin with the heroine Charlotte Heywood in her home of the hamlet Willingden, a small world where she lives happily with her large family in 1819. Riordan’s opening line is lovely, mirroring the magnitude of Austen’s opening lines in all her novels (the most iconic and memorable being in Pride and Prejudice), and the journey of self-discovery that Charlotte is about to find herself upon:
“It was a spring day that whispered of a fine summer to come, the flowers chancing to open themselves up and the mild air scented with possibility.”
This small world is immediately opened by the arrival of Mr Tom Parker and his wife Mary, who by chance meet Charlotte and her family when they come to their rescue during a carriage accident. Tom is the mastermind behind a new seaside resort: the eponymous Sanditon. Sanditon is not only a place but a passion that dominates the novel, with the well-meaning and kind-hearted Tom fighting to gain its popularity and success, sometimes to the detriment of his relationships under the watchful eye of his patroness, the opinionated and staggeringly rich Lady Denham. Riordan captures Austen’s description of Tom Parker perfectly:
“Sanditon was a second wife and four children to him – hardly less dear – and certainly more engrossing.”
And a couple of days later, Charlotte joins the Parkers on their journey to Sanditon, her world rapidly growing.
Charlotte Heywood is immediately an endearing heroine: we discover the new world of Sanditon through her eyes. She is endearing, herself full of opinions and thoughts that she finds it hard not to express, but always trying to act in the best interest of everyone around her. Not only is she brought to a new place, but into a completely new social circle populated by a vast array of intriguing characters so different to those of Willingden.
My absolute favourite character in the whole book (apart from Charlotte and Miss Georgiana Lambe, who develop a wonderful friendship throughout the novel) is Arthur Parker, the brother of Tom and Sidney Parker. Whilst Tom is possessed with the success of Sanditon, and the handsome Sidney providing a love interest for Charlotte, Arthur is such a comic relief as an unfit, cheerful hypochondriac who cannot help but be friendly and kind to everybody. A classic episode with Arthur is him discussing his health with Charlotte:
“If I were bilious, wine would disagree with me, but it always does my nerves good. Do you know, the more I drink, the better I feel. I often wake up in the morning feeling very groggy, but after a few glasses of wine I’m right as rain. That is quite remarkable, don’t you think?”
Charlotte was not sure that she did. “You don’t think regular exercise…?”
“Regular exercise? I wish my nerves were up to it, Miss Heywood, indeed I do, but strong wine is the only thing that does me any good at all. Though I can take a little toast with butter on it – no more than six or seven slices, though.”
He looks for the good in everybody, and his unintentionally funny conversation also serves an important purpose. Miss Lambe is an heiress from Antigua, and Austen’s first black character. She is the ward of Sidney Parker, who worked with her father. She is a wonderfully strong and opinionated character who is stifled as she is kept under the watchful eye of a boring governess, frustrated to be away from her sweetheart, and often courted for her immense fortune. She is put on show by Lady Denham at a luncheon with a pineapple as its crowning glory, but sees through the show of welcome to be one in which she can be looked at. It is here that Arthur jumps to her support, applauding her comments and taking the uncomfortable attention from Miss Lambe to the pineapple itself, which ends up being rotten. The friendship which comes to pass between them is lovely.
Although my effusiveness for the novel is making this review a bit long, I also have to mention the relationship between Charlotte, Sidney, and the Young James Stringer, Tom Parker’s foreman of the building work and an aspiring architect. Although frustrating at times, the romance that ensues is brilliant as it is unpredictable: it twists and turns and develops, with Riordan making you want Charlotte to be with both options at different points. I won’t spoil the ending, but the thread of romance could definitely be fully from the pen of Jane Austen, with Riordan doing justice to the characters and ideas.
Sanditon is a busy novel: there are many characters and storylines which interlink, many desires and wants and deceits that have come to a head in this new seaside destination. It is an education for Charlotte, but not an unpleasant one: in being drawn away from the small world of Willingden, she grows and understands more about the world around her, and the people in it. There are characters you will love (I’ve listed mine here!) and love to hate (Sir Edward Denham being my main one!), which make it such an engaging story that you will love. As somebody who is a diehard Austen fan, I have to admit I was nervous about reading the novel, but ultimately I found that Sanditon bears important traces of Austen, but with a twenty-first century twist that does not fall into the trap of anachronism.
Thank you so much to Grand Central Publishing for gifting me not only Sanditon, but also The World of Sanditon: a companion to the series which looks behind the scenes, into the writing and storyboarding processes, as well as into the context of Regency England, the seaside and beyond. Also thank you to Laurel Ann Nattress, who contacted me about being involved with this blog review tour!