How closely is Sanditon based on Jane Austen’s original unfinished novel?

Jane Austen left the novel incomplete when she died in 1817 – but more than 200 years later, Andrew Davies has finished the story

Sanditon

The novel Sanditon may have been left unfinished by Jane Austen when she died, but now the story has been adapted and continued as an eight-part drama on ITV.

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But how closely does it follow her original story? What has been added, and what has been left out? And what about the – ahem – scene of a sexual nature in episode one? Here’s what you need to know….


How much of Sanditon is based on Jane Austen’s work?

Sanditon

In March 1817, after writing 11 chapters of a brand-new novel, Jane Austen laid down her pen and abandoned the project. She was becoming increasingly unwell, and three months later she died at the age of just 41.

The author had originally called her novel “The Brothers”, but in 1925 it was retitled “Sanditon” and finally published for the public to read. In those first 24,000 words, Austen introduces us to young Charlotte Heywood and a cast of characters at the would-be fashionable seaside resort of Sanditon, which her host Tom Parker is desperately trying to put on the map as a Regency holiday spot.

There’s tons of potential for intrigue – but the story ends abruptly before the plot can really get going. So to flesh out what might have happened next, ITV brought in experienced Jane Austen adapter Andrew Davies (the screenwriter behind 1995’s Pride and Prejudice and 2008’s Sense and Sensibility) to write an eight-part series.

“Reading the book I thought, well there’s about enough for this for half of one episode,” Davies recalls. “And indeed, I did use up the material in the book in the first half of the first episode. It was a bit daunting.”

The TV show’s characters are instantly recognisable from Austen’s original descriptions, and Davies has followed the story she wrote almost exactly. But after that he has been forced to improvise, inventing everything that happens in the TV drama after the arrival of Sidney Parker (Theo James).

“What she did was, set up a place, and establish this wonderful group of characters very clearly,” the screenwriter says. “But she never really got the story going at all. But what she did was just so fresh, because these men in particular are not like Jane Austen’s usual people. They’re kind of businessmen, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re something new.”


What happens in the novel?

*SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 1!*

The unfinished novel centres on Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), one of 14 children of a respectable Sussex country gentleman. Just as we see in the TV adaptation, the story begins when Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) and Mrs Parker (Kate Ashfield) overturn their carriage while driving on an unfamiliar road near the Heywood family home – and as Mr Parker has sprained an ankle, the Heywoods kindly take them in to recover before they return to their home at Sanditon.

Tom Parker talks enthusiastically of this place, which he hopes to build into a fashionable seaside resort, and persuades the family to let their daughter Charlotte come and stay as a guest for the summer.

Sanditon

Charlotte is delighted to visit Sanditon. She soon meets Lady Denham (Anne Reid) of Sanditon House, the wealthy noblewoman who Tom Parker has persuaded to invest in Sanditon’s future – despite her penny-pinching habits and her preoccupation with her money.

Lady Denham’s preoccupation is not without reason. Top candidates for her fortune are two relatives via her second marriage: her nephew Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and his sister Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer). But recently Lady Denham has taken in a poor relation from her own family, Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky), who she rather likes, so it’s clear there is going to be some competition down the line.

Charlotte also gets to know her host’s family, which provides more eccentric characters. The Parkers are surprised and delighted by a visit from Mr Parker’s sister Miss Diana Parker (Alexander Roach), a hypochondriac busybody; a second hypochondriac sister called Susan (who does NOT appear in the drama); and a jolly but indolent younger brother called Arthur Parker (Turlough Convery), who fancies himself an invalid thanks to his sisters’ influence.

Sanditon

In the novel (as in the TV series), Sir Edward attempts to charm Charlotte (who is not wholly impressed by his faux-intellectual ramblings) – but our heroine quickly realises that Sir Edward already has his eye on seducing Clara, for his own reasons.

And after a protracted mix-up about whether one or two big groups are meant to be coming to Sanditon (which has thankfully been excised from the TV version), a woman called Mrs Griffiths (Elizabeth Berrington) arrives in town with three charges: the two Miss Beauforts, and a West Indian heiress called Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke).

Finally, Tom’s fashionable and well-connected brother Sidney Parker (Theo James) turns up in Sanditon and Charlotte meets him for the first time. She finds him charming.

And that’s pretty much it! Everything after that moment in episode one has been invented just for the TV series.


What is different in the TV series? Who is Charlotte’s love interest in the original novel?

Leo Suter plays Young Stringer in Sanditon

While Davies used Austen’s original work as a leaping-off point and as inspiration, he is able to add his own touch and bring in brand-new characters – including another eligible young man.

“I think she’d been obviously setting up Charlotte and Sidney for some kind of frisson,” Davies explains. “And there was Sir Edward as well, who presents himself as a sexy man, but not a very reliable one.

“And then we thought, well, hang on, that’s not enough – let’s have a decent chap!”

In the novel there is a passing mention of “old Stringer” and “young Stringer”, who are market gardeners – but Davies has made young Stringer into a potential suitor, played by Leo Suter.

“He’s an invention,” the screenwriter says. “Because the building of the town is obviously so important [to the story], you have to think – who is actually doing this building? So young Stringer came into being, as did old Stringer, his dad. And there’s a kind of dynamic going on there, because young Stringer doesn’t want to stay being a foreman all his life. He wants to be an architect, he’s got big ambitions and he’s clever as well as practical.”


Is there an incestuous brother/sister relationship in the novel?

Sanditon

In the TV series, there’s something deeply uncomfortable going on between Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and his sister Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) – although, as they are extremely keen to point out, they are step-siblings and do not share any blood.

Both characters do appear in the novel, with Sir Edward portrayed as a handsome faux-intellectual fop. The first time we hear about him, we learn that he resides at Denham Park with his sister Miss Denham (“a fine young woman, but cold and reserved”), and that neither of them has enough money for their social status.

The brother and sister arrive in Sanditon together, and seem to come as a pair; Charlotte bumps into them at the local library, where Edward claims to have been giving Esther “counsel in the selection of some books.”

But nowhere is there a suggestion that these two are in any kind of sexual or romantic relationship… or that they are anything other than biological siblings!


Did Jane Austen write THAT sexual scene between Clara and Edward?

Sanditon

Not, really no. But it didn’t come from nowhere…

Take a look at this paragraph from the novel, where Charlotte catches sight of something through the trees:

Charlotte, as soon as they entered the enclosure, caught a glimpse over the pales of something white and womanish in the field on the other side. It was something which immediately brought Miss Brereton into her head; and stepping to the pales, she saw indeed and very decidedly, in spite of the mist, Miss Brereton seated not far before her at the foot of the bank, which sloped down from the outside of the paling, and which a narrow path seemed to skirt along—Miss Brereton seated, apparently very composedly—and Sir Edward Denham by her side.

They were sitting so near each other and appeared so closely engaged in gentle conversation that Charlotte instantly felt she had nothing to do but to step back again and say not a word. Privacy was certainly their object. It could not but strike her rather unfavourably with regard to Clara; but hers was a situation which must not be judged with severity.

Of course, in the world of Andrew Davies, “something white and womanish” and “sitting so near each other” naturally gets a new interpretation: on TV, she’s clearly giving him a handjob.

“We just sat around talking and thinking, and saying, dare we do that? Yes!” Davies says. “There’s a funny bit in the book when Jane Austen says: poor Charlotte peers looking for the deer, and sees something, she’s not sure what she’s seen, something white and womanly. And anyway, somehow it became – what it was.”

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As for “sexing it up”, he jokes: “I really aim to please myself, writing these things. I write something that I would like to watch. And I suppose the sexing it up thing comes in fairly naturally. If it’s not there I feel that that’s a shame, and I put some in.”

Sanditon airs on Sundays from 25th August at 9pm on ITV