Forget Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice: thanks to the ITV’s eight-part TV adaptation, the only Jane Austen novel anyone’s going to be talking about this autumn is the author’s unfinished project, Sanditon.
Written just months before Austen’s death in 1817, Sanditon tells the story of Charlotte Heywood, a joyful and unconventional woman who moves away from her countryside hometown to a seaside resort.
But, with just 11 fragmented chapters to work from, director and screenwriter Andrew Davies was forced to sit down and decide what happens next. Where was Austen’s tale going? What did she have planned for Charlotte? And was this novel – so unlike any of her others – ever going to end on the same ‘happy ever after’ note seen in Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Sense & Sensibility?
“It’s about halfway through the first episode where it cuts off and Andrew’s imagination starts to create the world,” Rose Williams tells me, when we sit down to discuss her starring role in Sanditon as Austen’s newest heroine. One of the UK’s rising talents, Williams has gone from the likes of Casualty and Tocks to starring opposite Cynthia Turner in Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion – and let’s not forget her standout performances in Reign and Curfew.
With this impressive CV under her belt, it’s easy to understand why Williams was approached for the role of Sanditon’s determined heroine Charlotte. It’s also not surprising to learn that she made a point of reading every single Austen novel, including the incomplete manuscript, before filming even began.
So, when she tells me that this adaptation feels just like one of the author’s finished works, I believe her wholeheartedly.
“It’s got all of the core elements of Austen drama that people know and love,” says Williams, “but equally it is different, because those 11 chapters are very different to anything she wrote before.
“The story is quite dynamic and has a different pace to it. Austen introduces 17 characters pretty fast, and she’s not interested in the landed gentry and chaps riding horses on the hills that we’re used to. Instead, she’s talking about these men, these businessmen, and their story is all about ingenuity, about building a new world, and investing money.”
Introducing Charlotte Heywood, a thoroughly modern Austen heroine
Williams noticed an immediate difference between the likes of Charlotte Heywood and that of Elizabeth Bennett, Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse.
“Charlotte is interested and focused on the world of work and ingenuity, and it’s the architectural plans for Sanditon that draws her there,” notes Williams. “She wants to see how the fishing village is going to be flipped into a high-society and highly fashionable town. It is so far from her experience growing up on a farm: she wants to go and see this place, and see how it is being built and learn about business. She’s nothing like Northanger Abbey’s Catherine, who goes to Bath just to look for a husband. She is interested in work, ingenuity, business and the building of the place. She is not looking for a rich man.”
It’s a point which is underlined frequently in ITV’s Sanditon. In fact, Charlotte – when asked intrusive questions about her marital plans by Lady Denham – says frankly: “No, I’m not looking for a husband, and if I was, wealth would not come into it.”
However, as I point out to Williams during our conversation, the best laid plans in life often go awry. And so, while Charlotte doesn’t intentionally set out to find love, it isn’t long before the first sparks of romance begin to fly.
So, is Sanditon really Jane Austen’s version of Love Island?
Just as we see in Austen’s original manuscript, our heroine soon meets Sidney Parker (Theo James) for the first time – a man whom she herself acknowledges to be very handsome.
In Davies’ adaptation, Sidney isn’t the only man contending for Charlotte’s hand and heart. We also see our heroine introduced to another potential suitor in the form of the charismatic, yet dangerously unreliable, Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox). And, as if that weren’t enough, Davies has also written in an entirely new character in the form of romantic underdog Young Stringer (Leo Suter), a lower-class member of society who falls desperately in love with Charlotte.
“I think she’d obviously been setting up Charlotte and Sidney for some kind of [romantic narrative] yeah,” Davies told press following a screening of the first episode earlier this year. “And Sir Edward as well, who presents himself as a sexy man but not a very reliable one, and then we thought, ‘well it’s not enough, let’s have a decent chap who’s got lots of things in common with Charlotte, somebody she instantly likes because they never quarrel.’”
“It’s a bit like Love Island, really,” Davies added. “I mean is she just friend-zoning him? Or is there a fanny flutter? I confess I am a fan of Love Island.”
When I remind Williams of this, she laughs. “That’s so funny,” she says. “He was actually talking about that when we were doing a round table and he did say, ‘I suppose that’s a bit like Love Island!’ at the time.”
Intrigued to know her thoughts on the matter, I ask her if she herself has drawn any parallels between the ITV2 reality show and Austen’s unfinished manuscript – and it quickly becomes apparent that Williams is less sure on this matter than Davies. We talk it out for a while, one Austen fan to another, and eventually agree that there are some similarities between the two shows. Namely, the complex romantic plots, the wordplay, the fact that both see a number of suitors compete for a woman’s hand, and that both focus on the intricacies of interactions between men and women.
“I think Austen would probably write something satirical about Love Island if she were alive today,” says Williams.
The “effective” male nudity of Sanditon
One big difference between Love Island and Sanditon? Well, for starters there’s a strict ‘no nudity’ rule on the former.
That’s right: in a departure from previous Austen adaptations (Colin Firth’s sopping wet shirt in Pride and Prejudice doesn’t count), Sanditon features several instances of male nudity. Which makes sense: it was customary, at the time, for men to bathe in the sea naked while women were wheeled to the shoreline in bathing machines covered from head to toe.
“It’s so effective and emotive it would be wrong to say there should be no naked bodies,” Suter, whose character strips off on screen, said after the press screening. “Because a naked body tells so much it’s very compelling to watch [and] I think in that scene it’s good and it really, really works.”
Of course, it’s unusual for a show to feature male over female nudity – and Williams believes that this is symptomatic of the #MeToo movement and a changing TV and film landscape.
“Interestingly, in the character-breakdowns, particularly from American shows and films, they used to put something like, ‘Lucy. 21. Beautiful, athletic, or beautiful, vulnerable or pretty girl next door’,” she tells me. “The first describing words used to describe the character were always appearance-based, and they would specify what they wanted her body to look like. The word ‘busty’ came up a lot.”
Williams – who says roles which sexually objectify female characters always pose a “question mark” – adds: “I’m not seeing that so much anymore, which is fantastic. Also, I’m seeing phrases like ‘all ethnicities welcome’ on the breakdowns, which is great. A lot of the time it used to just read ‘Caucasian’, and even that has changed. More than enough time has passed for that to bloody change!”
On the controversy of Sanditon’s male screenwriter…
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that many were unhappy about the fact that the writer tasked with adapting (and finishing) Austen’s incomplete story would be a man.
From the Golden Globes’ now infamous entirely male best director category, to the news that less than 4% of major studio films released last year were directed by women (the lowest percentage of female-helmed movies in at least half a decade), it’s clear that something needs to change to create a future generation of female filmmakers. It’s understandable, then, that while Andrew Davies has worked on countless Austen adaptations – including modern-day retellings such as Bridget Jones’ Diary – some felt that a female screenwriter should have been approached.
“That is a good point,” muses Williams, “and I hear that point, but equally Andrew is the most qualified person around to do the job. It is a territory that he’s mastered so beautifully and he has such a deep understanding of reading between the lines and being able to fine-tune Austen’s message.
“The Sanditon scripts are so beautiful – and they include full story breakdowns. When I was approached to audition, I was sent a paragraph about what happens in each episode, and a paragraph to explain all the characters. By the time I’d read through to the eighth one, I was actually almost moved to tears. It was Andrew who had written that, and I am in awe of his talent.
“I know that there are so many talented female writers out there. But in this case Andrew is just the heart and soul of Austen on-screen. He is a boss man – and I’m a huge fan.”
A departure from tradition
The people of ‘modern Sanditon’, to quote Austen herself, are very different from those seen in her more famous novels. These people are keen to make their own fortune and forge their own way in the world, and so they have moved out of the ‘old house – the house of [their] forefathers’ and are busily constructing a new world in the form of a modern seaside commercial town.
“What [Jane Austen] did was set up a place and established this wonderful group of characters very clearly but she never really got the story going at all,’ Davies said. ‘But what she did was so fresh because these men in particular are not like Jane Austen’s usual people,” said Davies at the press screening.
“They’re kind of businessmen, entrepreneurs, they’re something new and what the country was going to become. Think the first industrial age with big business. So that’s very interesting.”
This feeling of modernity, Williams tells me, is present throughout the entire show – from the storylines to the music which can be heard playing during the ball sequence at the end.
“Some people were talking about the new bit at the end, and how different it is,” she says. “But actually, that Irish folk music was the kind that was played and enjoyed at these kinds of balls. So it may seem a little bit off-kilter but actually it is all historically accurate and really paints a picture of the kind of world that Jane Austen herself was living in.”
Below: Watch the Sanditon trailer
The strong (and sexually-empowered) women of Sanditon
Speaking at the press screening, executive producer Belinda Campbell said: “All the women in the show are strong and making their best of the situation with the hand they’ve been dealt. They’re all formidable characters.”
She isn’t wrong: as well as Williams’ Charlotte, we have Crystal Clarke’s Georgiana Lambe – an heiress and Austen’s first black character – and Lily Sacofsky’s Clara Brereton, the beautiful and impoverished niece of Lady Denham. The beautiful and impoverished niece of Lady Denham who, as you may have noticed from the plethora of scandalised headlines appearing online, enjoys a furtive sex scene with Fox’s Edward Denham.
Addressing the controversy around the scene, Charlotte Spencer – who stars as Ester Denham – has noted that the incident hasn’t been included for sauciness’ sake: rather, it’s integral to the storyline and will allow viewers to explore the misogynistic conventions of that time.
“It’s alluded to in the book but back then she [Austen] would never have been able to say that, it was a totally different time and a totally different era,” Spencer told Harper’s Bazaar, “and yet we all know from stories of that era, and with the kings and queens who came from times before that, was all debauchery – especially in the higher classes.
“Of course they had sex! It’s shocking to me that people are shocked. It was very important that Lily [who plays Clara] knew exactly what she was briefed on. I don’t think she would have taken it on it if it didn’t serve the story. It’s not there for any no reason; it’s there to push the story forward, and you’ll understand when you see more of the episodes what it means. It’s a really interesting storyline between me, Lily and Jack.”
Williams, likewise, is pleased with how the women of Sanditon have been adapted and evolved into complex and fully fleshed-out characters. Indeed, she says that Charlotte is actually based on Austen herself.
“They took pieces of information about Jane Austen, from her life and her personality, and put her into the character of Charlotte,” she tells me. “That would be something to say to people who are questioning if they want to watch it.”
Will there be a Sanditon sequel?
Andrew Davies has already suggested that a second season of Sanditon is a possibility. “We haven’t had much chance to talk about it yet, but yeah, I do have a few ideas,” he said. “And in fact the way we end series one, I hope we then get to a point where an audience says, ‘You can’t leave it at that!’”
If a sequel gets the greenlight, Williams has said that she would be keen to return.
“I’d love that,” she tells me, when I pose the idea of a second season to her. “It has been a great joy playing Charlotte because it’s in her nature is that she is always strong: she knows who she is, and the script never focuses on her vulnerability, or sees her cower to male characters.”
She adds: “I’ve had such a wonderful learning experience about Austen’s works and her legacy – I didn’t quite realise the extent of what a phenomenal, original feminist she was. And I really felt at home on set, like I never really have before. The crew, the cast – it is a fantastic group of people and I felt so much part of the team with everybody that I hope it goes again and I hope it is all the same people because it was such a lovely environment. So fingers crossed, but we will see.”
In the meantime, Williams is keeping busy – and the talented actress already has a number of new projects up her sleeve, including psychological arthouse horror The Power.
“I am about to start filming a psychological set in the early 70s,” she tells me. “It is around the time there were rolling blackouts across London, so I am learning about the social history of the East End a bit more which is interesting.”
It’s this variety that keeps Williams feeling driven and focused. “I suppose the joy of it all for me is how you don’t really know what’s around the corner and how whenever I get a script in from an audition,” she says. “It could be a science fiction, it could be a period piece, it could be something contemporary and gritty, and the fun is the whole process of auditioning, or being on set and performing a character and then going on to something different – is the contrast of the worlds you kind of get to explore as an actor.”
Considering the fact that both Sanditon and The Power are book adaptations, I ask Williams if there is a particular work of fiction that she would love to bring to the screen. For a moment, there is silence. And then, spectacularly, she informs me that she’d far rather focus on some of the amazing women who have been forgotten by the history books.
“I am quite interested in ancient queens and ancient female rulers,” she says, adding that she’s obsessed with Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia. “The warrior queen Semiramis allegedly built the garden of Babylon [considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World] and, while I haven’t read a book, I feel that story would translate well to screen.”
I inform her, excitedly, that Stylist’s Visible Women campaign actually makes a point of highlighting the brilliant – albeit largely unknown – women from history. When I begin relaying the true story of Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, whose daring feats on the waves in the 16th century made her a naval folk hero, Williams is immediately interested.
“I’m googling that straight away,” she tells me. “I’ll be like, ‘Agent, I’ve got an idea!’”
And, finally, a message to all those who aren’t sure if Sanditon is worth the watch
“Give it a go,” advises Williams, when I ask her what she’d say to die-hard Austen fans who are worried about the series. “Andrew Davies wrote it and he is a mastermind behind Pride and Prejudice, he’s the mastermind behind all the lovely masterpieces by ITV, the Austen adaptations that are so well-loved.”
She finishes by saying: “In Sanditon, Austen clearly has a different perspective on life and is interested in very different people and themes: it feels very progressive. That being said, there is a love story throughout, there are lovely moments of comedy, and it is very funny and sweet – just the way it is written in the book – and that translates to the screen really brilliantly.
“I think it is wonderful. And I think that you will be pleasantly surprised!”
The first episode of Sanditon will air at 9pm, Sunday 25 August on ITV.