Some viewers may be surprised to see a black heiress at the centre of ITV period drama Sanditon, but the “young West Indian of large fortune” actually comes directly from the pages of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel.
Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke) arrives in the seaside resort of Sanditon under the protection of Mrs Griffiths, a middle-aged white woman whose other “charges” include the English Miss Beauforts. Her reputed £100,000 fortune makes her an immediate subject of interest to the other characters.
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In fact, Miss Lambe is actually Austen’s only black character in any of her works. Sadly, the author died before she had a chance to finish the novel – but ever since, Austen fans and scholars have wondered what she was plotting for Miss Lambe.
Into the breach steps Andrew Davies, serial Austen screenwriter (of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice and 2008’s Sense and Sensibility), who has taken Austen’s characters and finished her uncompleted story over eight episodes.
He tells us he was intrigued by the possibilities: “A black character in a Jane Austen, fascinating. Just how will she be received? How will she feel about being plunged into this very provincial set of all-white people?”
He adds: “There were black people in society, and you’ve got examples… there is a black heiress in Vanity Fair. Because George Osborne’s dad wants him to marry her, because she again has lots of money. So that was something that was happening, and obviously Jane Austen thought, let’s include one in my novel.
“But I have no idea really what she was going to do with Miss Lambe, and whether she was going to find love with any of the gentlemen on offer.”
The mention of Miss Lambe’s skin colour comes in the paragraph when Austen introduces Mrs Griffiths and her three young women: “Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about 17, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs Griffiths.”
Nowadays it’s considered outdated and offensive, but historically “mulatto” was a word used to describe someone of mixed race – especially someone with one white parent and one black. So there is no doubt that Austen planned to introduce a West Indian character to her English town of Sanditon.
Unfortunately we never actually found out how the town’s inhabitants reacted to this visitor, as a deteriorating Austen laid down her pen before the story’s action really got going.
But the early pages of the novel suggest that – despite her skin colour – Miss Lambe’s money would have opened doors and allowed her access to the highest levels of society.
However, the grand, rich, money-conscious Lady Denham (played in the drama by Anne Reid) has some concerns, even though she is keen to welcome the visitors. Originally thinking (mistakenly) that an entire West Indian family is on its way to Sanditon, Lady Denham reacts like this:
‘Very good, very good,’ said her Ladyship. ‘A West Indy family and a school. That sounds well. That will bring money.’
‘No people spend more freely, I believe, than West Indians,’ observed Mr Parker.
[Lady Denham:] ‘Aye, so I have heard, and because they have full purses, fancy themselves equal, may be, to your old country families.’
Is Lady Denham’s reaction more about “new money” and class differences, or racism? It’s not clear, but she can’t have many qualms – as she immediately forms a plan to marry the heiress to her nephew Sir Edward.
Austen writes: “In Miss Lambe, here was the very young lady, sickly and rich, whom she had been asking for; and she made the acquaintance for Sir Edward’s sake… How it might answer with regard to the Baronet, remained to be proved.”
Tom’s busybody sister Diana Parker also immediately forms a connection when the girl arrives, telling her family: “I wish I could go with you myself but in five minutes I must be at Mrs Griffiths’s to encourage Miss Lambe in taking her first dip. She is so frightened, poor thing, that I promised to come and keep up her spirits, and go in the [Bathing] Machine with her if she wished it.”
As for the ITV drama, it remains to be seen what Andrew Davies will do with Miss Lambe once she arrives in Sanditon…
Sanditon aired in the UK in August-October 2019 on ITV
Sanditon airs in double bills from Sunday December 13 at 8/7c on PBS Masterpiece in the US