The Curious Gothic in Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon’
Austen’s books are known for their subtle, unsentimental and humourous characterisations and storytelling. But the recent adaptation of her unfinished novel draws heavily from Gothic tropes — presenting an unexpected combination of gentle wit and melodramatic intrigue.
When Jane Austen passed away on 18 July 1817, she left a legacy of four novels published to moderate success (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma) and two novels published posthumously (Persuasion, Northanger Abbey). Before her death, she’d started but left unfinished another book — untitled and unseen until 1925 when it was published under the name Sanditon.
Austen’s popularity has only increased since her demise — no doubt due to her writing’s unique and engaging characterisation of human foibles, lack of sentimentalism and sensationalism, and the ability to gently skewer the ridiculous. Her style is recognisable in all of her works.
So with the recent TV adaptation of Sanditon, many expected the typical Austen story. With the unfinished novel only containing 11 finished chapters, Austen had set up a cast of fun, eclectic characters, but little direction as to the plot. Famed screenwriter Andrew Davies undertook to further develop the story for ITV. His version of the narrative, however, took the tale into a decidedly un-Austen direction.
While Andrew Davies has successfully adapted many literary works (including the brilliant 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth), his method of injecting more sensuality into classic literature is particularly evident as his take on Sanditon borrows heavily from the tropes of Gothic literature.
What is Gothic Literature?
Jane Austen famously disparaged Gothic drama in her first novel, Northanger Abbey. Her heroine, Catherine Moreland, was a sweet but silly girl — over stimulated by the popular, sensational, Gothic novels of the time. Of course, Austen’s take on the tropes in Gothic literature was complex and she managed to comment on the real anxieties of young women when they were placed in new situations or experiences.
But what are these tropes? There are several plot elements that when combined make up a classic Gothic story. Usually, they contain an innocent, virginal heroine, a menacing older man, supernatural elements like ghosts, a sinister mystery, and a foreboding setting (like an old house which may be a reason why the genre’s known as ‘Gothic’ since the stories are often set in houses with Gothic architecture). The story may revolve around madness, secrets, darkness, and death because it’s a combination of horror, romance, and suspense.
I love Gothic stories. The melodrama, the revealing of human fears and weaknesses, and the fine line between fantasy and reality makes for a captivating story. But it’s a dramatic and sensational type of storytelling, which is decidedly against Austen’s straightforward style. Yet this recent adaptation of Sanditon infused Austen’s gently witty and comic story with sex, drama, and intrigue.
Re-imagining Austen With Gothic Flair
The adaptation of Sanditon takes its opening from the novel. It begins with Mr and Mrs Parker’s (Kris Marshall, Kate Ashfield) coach accident which leads them to the Heywood family welcoming them to recover in their home. In thanks, they invite the eldest daughter, Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), to accompany them for the summer to the new seaside resort town of Sanditon.
From there Charlotte meets a host of new people that fit with the common characters from Austen’s repertoire: the rich but disagreeable dowager Lady Denham (Anne Reid), who holds the future of Sanditon in her hands as the current sole investor; and the poor relations who call her Aunt — sweetly vicious Clara (Lily Sacofsky), and siblings by marriage Esther and Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox, Charlotte Spencer). These three are vying for Lady Denham’s favour for the sake of inheritance. Charlotte’s society also includes the Parker’s extended family — attractive, aloof younger brother Sidney Parker (Theo James), and his hypochondriac sibling Arthur Parker (Turlough Convery). Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) rounds out the main cast as a “half mulatto” (the historically outdated term for mixed-race) young heiress, visiting from the West Indies.
There’s precious little plot in the novel so Davies makes the bold decision to spice things up a little. He introduces a variety of Gothic ideas into the narrative that takes away from Austen’s vision and style but overturns what could have been a predictable tale of misunderstanding and romance. The more prominent Gothic aspects are detailed below.
The first and most shocking addition is the nature of Sir Edward and Esther Denham’s relationship. These two siblings-in-law live alone (with servants) in the decrepit manor home left to them by their parents. The house itself has a gothic touch to it, with its sense of lavish decay and isolation. And Edward and Esther are closer than strictly proper — in fact, they’re in love. The sense of unease in their interactions builds in the first episode, as their closeness seems inappropriate. Incest is not a theme that would be touched on by Austen but is not uncommon in Gothic literature. It is part of the taboo nature of Gothic stories and while creating drama in Sanditon, it feels very out of place and unnecessary.
Another topic relatively untouched by Austen is that of death. The cantankerous Lady Denham constantly belittles and criticizes the people around her, so that when she is facing death her relatives are most concerned with finding out who will inherit her fortune. Most of the first half of the miniseries concerns the machinations of Clara, Esther, and Sir Edward. This is not a new idea in Austen’s world, but Davies manages to dwell on the possibility of Lady Denham’s death in a particularly morbid way. This grim aspect of the story fits the Gothic tone perfectly.
The miniseries also ends with the death of a minor character — unfortunately he dies in a fire — another dramatic and fitting ending in a Gothic story. Fire often comes up in these tales as natural catastrophes add more horror and suspense to the story.
The Menacing Older Man
Charlotte’s love interest, Sidney Parker, is at first a typical kind of Austen hero: reserved, brooding, and attractive. Sidney also gets off on the wrong foot with Charlotte during their first conversation. When she becomes friends with Sidney’s ward, Georgiana, Charlotte becomes complicit in trying to hide Georgiana’s love affair with a respectable, but poor man. In effect, Sidney becomes a villain, especially when he dismisses Georgiana’s feelings outright, and does not care to explain his actions to Charlotte.
The adaptation paints Sidney in a far more threatening light because he is an obstacle to Georgiana’s happiness and Charlotte’s relationship with him is contentious at first. The romance between Sidney and Charlotte comes later and only after they have come to see the worth in each other. The adaptation also does a good job of setting up another potential love interest for Charlotte in Young Stringer (Leo Suter), the steadfast labourer who hopes to become an architect. This potential love match ensures that Sidney can play the villainous part for a few episodes in this miniseries.
Gothic stories highlight human anxieties, and one point of unease common in the early 1800s was the incongruity between British imperialism and English prejudice. It’s not clear whether Jane Austen’s creation of an heiress from the West Indies in the story was meant to be a commentary on racism at the time, but this adaptation highlights imperialist fears.
The portrayal of Georgiana is a sensitive one, with her discomfort in English society and her reluctance to befriend anyone making her a sympathetic outcast. She chafes under the restrictions placed on her, especially because she is not allowed to continue correspondence with the man she loves — another man of African descent. The resolution to that romance is not a happy one for her as her English guardian is proved right, and Georgiana learns that his wishes for her are in her best interest. Perhaps a commentary on British imperialism as a necessary evil at the time? Georgiana’s angst and the barely concealed racism in some of the characters highlight another unexpectedly Gothic turn to the story.
This recent adaptation of Sanditon breathed life into the character sketches Jane Austen created. Fans of her work may have wanted a more conventional approach to completing the story, but Andrew Davies delivered something a little different. Something inspired by the popular sensationalist novels of Austen’s era, and the undercurrent of passion and human anxieties in her stories. It doesn’t always work for Sanditon and it might’ve resulted in disappointment for an expectant audience, but the result was an intriguing approach to the story.