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Un-silencing Miss Lambe: Masterpiece Considers Race in Jane Austen’s Sanditon

Jane Austen began writing Sanditon early in 1817, and it remained unfinished upon her death in July of that year.  The novel fragment consists of about fifty pages (of a modern edition format), and it introduces us to a set of characters concerned with the goings-on in the fictional tourist town in southeast England named in its title.  In Sanditon, Austen, once again, deftly and economically establishes the targets of her satiric fiction:  the enthusiastic and projecting Mr. Parker and his sickly siblings, the greedy and manipulative Lady Denham, the intelligent and curious Charlotte, and anyone who claims to understand the world according to literature.

Austen’s work was first published in 1925 as Fragment of a Novel with Notes, edited by R. W. Chapman,1 and, as Mary Gaither Marshall has observed, Sanditon “is the last and least adapted of the novels.”  Marshall surveys an attempted completion of the novel from around 1850 by Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy, Alice Cobbett’s Somehow Lengthened. A Development of “Sanditon” (1932), Marie Dobbs’s Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady (1975), Rebecca Baldwin’s A Sanditon Quadrille (1981), Julia Barrett’s Jane Austen’s Charlotte: Her Fragment of a Last Novel (2000), and a number of other more recent examples of Austen’s proliferating fan fiction. 

In 2019, PBS Masterpiece in a collaboration with Britbox renewed this effort and, capitalizing on the continuing popularity of Austen with big and small screen audiences, began airing the adaptation of screenwriter Andrew Davies and his team.  Davies’s screenwriting credits already included the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, the 2007 Northanger Abbey, and the 2008 Sense and Sensibility.  In Season 1 of Sanditon he offers a romance that echoes much of his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice:  the simmering sexual tension between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, the scandal of Lydia’s elopement, and the overweening snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  In addition, the economic fecklessness of Sanditon’s Parkers reeks of Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot.  Davies, however, makes a number of less Austenesque choices that add additional layers of interest, including incest between the Denham siblings and a whole lot of topless men.  In his adaptation, Davies exhausts the entirety of Austen’s original material in the first episode and provides questionable answers to the unanswered questions of plot and characterization raised by Austen’s fragment.  While Victoria Baugh celebrates Austen’s decisions in Sanditon—“Miss Lambe’s unquestioned origins, lack of betrayal by a British male, and ability to be read as a person of color without the presence of a black maid”—as evidence of her “position as an equal among her peers” (455), Davies’s screenplay disappointingly undercuts what Baugh terms the fragment’s “critique of Romantic sentimentalism and its inherent prejudices” (449).  Instead, the television script subordinates and instrumentalizes Miss Lambe’s marriage plot to Charlotte’s and perpetuates a fantasy of benevolent (non-racist), white British colonialism. 

In Austen’s fragment, as has been noted by many readers, Miss Lambe does not speak.  She is only spoken about.  When Lady Denham hears of her imminent arrival, we read: 

A West Indy Family & a school.  That sounds well.  That will bring Money.”—“No people spend more freely, I believe, than W. Indians.” observed Mr Parker.—“Aye—so I have heard—and because they have all full Purses, fancy themselves equal, may be, to your old Country Families.  But then, they who scatter their Money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischeif by raising the price of Things—And I have heard that’s very much the case with your West-injines—and if they have come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of Life, we shall not much thank them Mr Parker.”  (392) 

Lady Denham’s views define colonial West Indians according to their wealth and ability to enrich the English homeland.  In questioning their presumed equality and focusing on their responsibility for inflation, she insists on their essential difference from and subordination to the “old Country Families” of England. 

The novel fragment next mentions the heiress when Mr. Parker’s sister provides an update from a friend, Mrs. G.  She explains that Mrs. G was 

“particularly careful & scrupulous…on account of a certain Miss Lambe a young lady (probably Neice) under her care. . . . Miss Lambe has an immense fortune—richer than all the rest—& very delicate health.—One sees clearly enough by all this, the sort of Woman Mrs G. must be—as helpless & indolent, as Wealth and Hot Climate are apt to make us.”  (409) 

This fixation on Miss Lambe’s “very delicate health” and her supposed aunt’s “helplessness and indolence” reflects common beliefs of the time that any person, regardless of race, born in tropical environs, and especially those surrounded by luxury, were morally and physically corrupted. 

We eventually find out that Mrs. G is not Miss Lambe’s aunt but is “particularly scrupulous” on behalf of Miss Lambe because she “supported herself by receiving such great girls & young Ladies, as wanted either Masters for finishing their Education, or a home for beginning their Displays,” and that, of the three under her care, “Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important & precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune.—She was about 17, half-mulatto, chilly & tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the Lodgings, & was always of the first consequences in every plan of Mrs G.—” (420–21).  Here Miss Lambe’s identity comes into fuller focus. She is not just any West Indian heiress.  She is the daughter of a white English planter and a woman of color.  Kathryn Sunderland, in her notes to the Oxford edition of Austen’s fragment, has pointed out that while the offensive term for a biracial black and white woman, “mulatto,” was frequently used in the period, “half-mulatto” is highly unusual (277n).  It’s possible the term could suggest her status as the progeny of a white English planter with a mixed-race partner of African descent, but the rest of this description focuses our attention on her reason for being in Sanditon.  She is a mixed-race heiress who, at the tender age of seventeen, an outsider as well as an object of curiosity and scrutiny, has been sent to England to find an appropriate, white husband from one of the very “old Country Families” to which Lady Denham insists she can never be equal. 

It is to Miss Lambe that Andrew Davies’s Sanditon gives voice, at first in ways that emphasize the elitism and racism of Austen’s Lady Denham and render Miss Lambe what Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield call “very much in place in our century.”  In Season 1, Miss Lambe, here named Georgiana, is presented as under the guardianship of Sidney Parker, who has placed her in the care of Mrs. Griffiths.  Miss Lambe disdains her subjection to England’s marriage market, protesting she doesn’t want to be stared at as a “negress,” “Black as treacle.”  She acknowledges that while her “father wanted her to take her place in polite society,” she “hate[s] this miserable chilly island.”  Lady Denham offers even more reason for Miss Lambe to hate England when she gives a dinner in her honor, as the most eligible of Sanditon’s young ladies.  In a ceremony intended to reinforce Miss Lambe’s cultural and racial difference, Lady Denham offers her guest of honor a pineapple to remind her of her home “Antigua” or, she feigns ignorance, “some such place.”  Lady Denham assumes that Miss Lambe, like her mother, “a pretty young negress,” must find a husband.  She tells Lambe that she too must “catch the master’s eye.  Cast her spell on him,” because “[t]hat’s the way the world works, ain’t it Miss Lambe.”  Miss Lambe responds to this pointed insult by switching between West Indian patois and standard British English, refusing to be equated with the economic produce of Britain’s colonies.  In the rest of the series, Davies’s Miss Lambe offers us a familiar proud heroine who stands up to this kind of aristocratic privilege. 

But of course, every heroine must have a love interest, and, upon his first appearance, Davies’s script seems to offer an antislavery activism to counter Lady Denham’s disturbing prejudice.  Miss Lambe defies the wishes of her guardian, maintaining a secret correspondence with Otis Molyneux.  Formerly enslaved, Molyneux is now a member of the Sons of Africa, championing, like the historical Olaudah Equiano, the emancipation of all those enslaved in Britain’s colonies.  When Sidney refuses his consent to their union, Miss Lambe hopes to elope with her lover, but she is kidnapped.  The season ends with Miss Lambe’s trust in Molyneux’s love broken. His boasts at the gaming house about possessing her fortune lead her to suspect that his professions of love were disingenuous. 

ortis charlotte geogina

Otis Molyneux (Jyuddah Jaymes), Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), and Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) in Sanditon Season 1

After this summary of Miss Lambe’s role in Season 1 of the television show, it is clear why viewers have come to different conclusions about what to make of the Davies adaptation of the character.  Hanh Nguyen, in “PBS’ Sanditon Brings Jane Austen’s Racy and Racist Subtext into the Open,” argues that this completion of Austen’s fragment critiques “the slavery and exploitation inherent in the British presence in the West Indies,” and Damianne Candice Scott celebrates the series alongside Netflix’s Bridgerton (2020) as an example of color-conscious casting that rejects the desire of some Austen fans to whitewash history.  Indeed, at first glance, the show’s representation of Miss Lambe’s trials rings true with respect to recent efforts to recover a more diverse past.  Lady Denham’s offensive behavior resonates with representations published by Austen’s own contemporaries.  In the anonymous 1808 novel The Woman of Colour (only available in a modern edition in 2008), the heroine, Olivia Fairfield, is forced by her father’s will to travel from Jamaica to England to marry her white cousin or be disinherited.  On the first page, she explains: 

The illegitimate offspring of [my father’s] slave could never be considered in the light of equality by the English planters. . . . We are considered . . . as an inferior race, but little removed from the brutes, because the Almighty Maker of all-created beings has tinged our skins with jet instead of ivory!—I say our for though the jet has been faded to olive in my own complexion, yet I am not ashamed to acknowledge my affinity with the swarthiest negro that was ever brought from Guinea’s coast!  (53) 

Further, like Davies’s Lady Denham, Olivia’s cousin’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Merton, attempts to insult the heiress by deliberately serving her “a large plate of boiled rice” (77).  Olivia relays Mrs. Merton’s corresponding explanation:  “Oh, I thought that Miss Fairfield—I understood that people of your—I thought that you almost lived upon rice . . . and so I ordered some to be got,—for my own part, I never tasted it in my life, I believe!” (77).  About this behavior Olivia concludes:  “this was evidently to mortify your Olivia; it was blending her with the poor negro slaves of the West Indies!” (77) 

Critics have been divided on how to interpret Olivia’s character, especially with respect to her return to her Jamaican plantation where she plans to “zealously engage [herself] in ameliorating the situation of our poor blacks” (188).  Nevertheless, as Daniel Livesay has revealed in his meticulous study Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733–1833 (2018), legal petitions that white planters made on behalf of their mixed-race children’s inheritance evidence the common phenomenon of mixed-race children traveling to England to be educated and married off.  Dido Elizabeth Belle, featured in Christine Kenyon-Jones’s 2010 essay “Ambiguous Cousinship: Mansfield Park and the Mansfield Family,” Amma Asante’s 2013 film, Belle, and Paula Byrne’s 2014 biography is another, perhaps more familiar example.  In rendering Miss Lambe a mere tool for the reconciliation of Charlotte and Sidney, however, the first season of Sanditon, despite its color-conscious casting, inspiring characterization, and imaginative plotting, proves less progressive than it at first appears. 

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From the very beginning, Season 1 is essentially structured around Charlotte’s relationship with Sidney.  Again, reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice, the first episode ends with a conversation between the two in which Charlotte offers her honest opinion about the other characters she has met in Sanditon.  When his brothers come under her judgment, Sidney coldly rebukes her, ruefully reminding them both that he “cannot expect anything from a girl with so little understanding.”  Charlotte and Sidney’s enmity deepens as she develops a friendship with Miss Lambe, and Miss Lambe confides in Charlotte that Sidney is her guardian and has ripped her from London to stymie advances from a lover he has forbidden her to see but with whom she is still secretly corresponding.  When Charlotte meets Otis, her disapproval of Sidney’s rudeness toward her at the ball is apparently justified when Otis and Miss Lambe reveal Sidney’s racial prejudice: 

CHARLOTTE:  “Your father was a mariner?” 
OTIS:  “I don’t know, but the man who gave him my freedom was.” 
CHARLOTTE: “Your freedom?” 
OTIS:  “I was born in Africa taken from my mother and sold as a child.  Providence put me in the hand of a gentleman. He gave me my freedom and an education.  That is why I now spend my days fighting for the liberty of others. 
GEORGIANA:  “Otis belongs to the Sons of Africa. They’re devoted to ending enslavement for good.”
CHARLOTTE: “Surely slavery’s consigned to history?” 
OTIS:  “Would that were so, Miss Heywood.  I’m afraid there are yet thousands who remain in bondage.  Its legacy is all around us.  How do you mean?  It’s in the cotton of your dress.  It’s in the grand houses of half the nobility of this country built with fortunes wrung from the blood and toil of my brothers and sisters.  You should ask your friend Sidney Parker about his time in Antigua.  He was glad enough to turn a blind eye when there was money to be made.” 

This representation of Charlotte’s complete ignorance of slavery is used to further establish her character’s principled humanitarianism.  Despite insistences elsewhere in the program on Charlotte’s intrepid curiosity and depth of reading, this conversation with a man of African descent transforms her well-meaning naivete into a consciousness raising that projects her own refusal of responsibility for slavery onto Sidney. 

charlotte otis

Otis (Jyuddah Jaymes) and Charlotte (Rose Williams) in Sanditon Season 1

This naivete, however, especially as it takes place in England sometime between 1815 and 1817 and after the 1807 outlawing of Britain’s legal involvement in the slave trade, seems fairly unjustifiable, especially when we are then asked to accept Charlotte’s horrified ignorance of slavery.  Her shocked surprise at being confronted with the reality of English culpability for slavery implies that had she been aware, she would have been actively promoting ideas and taking action to counter racial prejudice and expose the racism embedded in the system of everyday life in Sanditon.  Her horror in this moment of revelation attempts to absolve her from her lack of awareness and activity, and it helps shift our attention to her quick adoption of new anti-racist attitudes.  When Charlotte says, “I cannot for the life of me see what Sidney’s objections could be,” Miss Lambe concludes:  “Isn’t it obvious?  Look at him.”  Charlotte’s sweet innocence means that she must reject Sidney the evil racist.  Accordingly, when later in this same episode Sidney sees Otis and Georgiana together, and when he unceremoniously separates the lovers and threatens Otis, Charlotte concludes:  “The truth is you are so blinded by prejudice that you would judge a man by the color of his skin alone.  Why should I expect any better from a man whose fortune is so tainted with the stain of slavery?”  Sidney disdains to answer. 

Charlotte’s transformation into an anti-racist activist championing Miss Lambe’s relationship and deepening the central rift between herself and Sidney provides Season 1 with a rising action that reaches its climax with Miss Lambe’s disappearance at the end of episode 5.  After Charlotte confesses to aiding Miss Lambe and Otis’s clandestine correspondence, episode 6 follows Charlotte and Sidney on their search for the abducted heiress and features the beginning of their reconciliation.  Conveniently, Charlotte’s previous convictions about Sidney’s unbridled racism are ended when he simply states that he has “given up the sugar trade.”  The two intrepid investigators then track Otis to a Sons of Africa meeting, where the virtues of his anti-slavery activities are undercut by the truth of his massive gambling debts.  We learn that the man to whom Otis is indebted, Mr. Beecroft, has been intercepting Otis’s correspondence and arranged for Miss Lambe’s kidnapping.  Having overheard Otis bragging about Miss Lambe’s £60,000, Beecroft sells Miss Lambe to a Mr. Howard for the price of Otis’s debts, £1800, and Howard races with Miss Lambe toward the Scottish border for a quick elopement.  When Sidney rescues her, his refusal of Otis as Miss Lambe’s suitor is accepted, by all, as appropriate protection of his ward from a degenerate gambler.  After this romantic climax, episodes 7 and 8 leave Miss Lambe to mope in her room while Charlotte continues to observe Sidney’s now clearly honorable behavior and explain to Miss Lambe her complete change of heart.  Charlotte and Sidney finally dance at a ball, she wearing a golden gown more than a little reminiscent of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). 

This ending clarifies just how thoroughly Davies has subordinated Miss Lambe’s entire plot to reconciling Charlotte and Sidney.  In the eight episodes of the series, Miss Lambe’s story is only given space in 3 through 6.  Sidney’s presumed racism is sufficient cause for Charlotte’s dislike, but his revealed color-blind paternalism is sufficient cause for her love.  Davies turns Austen’s fragment into a weird fantasy of white anti-racism that is neither particularly historically accurate nor internally consistent with his own characterization.  Otis’s moral righteousness about British profits from enslaved labor rings hollow from a degenerate gambler and is overshadowed by the romantic reconciliation of Charlotte and Sidney. 

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Season 2 offers us a second, but ultimately failed, attempt at meaningful color-conscious casting and plotting.2  With Davies promoted to producer, the multiple writers for this season took pains to focus the series equally on the fortunes of Georgiana Lambe, Charlotte Heywood, and, new to the franchise, Alison Heywood, Charlotte’s younger sister.  While Alison proudly proclaims her intent to find a suitable husband, Charlotte, still grieving for Sidney—who has inexplicably died in Antigua—experiments with some Wollstonecraftian independence as a governess while Georgiana Lambe leads a sugar boycott. 

Charlotte governess

Charlotte (Rose Williams) as governess in Sanditon Season 2.

Miss Lambe’s satisfying social and political activism actively combats the racial prejudice she suffered in the first season at the hands of Lady Denham.  When Miss Lambe explains, “We are leading a boycott in the hopes that those plantation owners who persist in keeping slaves will be forced to follow my father’s example,” Lady Denham responds:  “Radical nonsense.  What good will denying ourselves sugar do?  Do you really think slavery will be stopped by a few do-gooding ladies at the seaside?”  Lady Denham later comments, “Still persisting with your misguided sugar boycott, I see.”  Miss Lambe’s response, “Hardly misguided.  The movement is gathering pace across the country,” invokes Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to stop speaking at the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and aligns Lady Denham’s racist and sexist views with Mitch McConnell’s view of Warren’s persistence as misguided.  Nevertheless, Lady Denham doubles down:  “It will change nothing.  Such decisions are made in Parliament, not by naïve young women.”  When Miss Lambe responds that “[i]n this matter Parliament has failed.  That is why we have taken matters into our own hands,” Lady Denham tries to deflect the argument by calling her a hypocrite for benefitting from an inheritance accumulated through enslaved labor. 

Eventually at Lady Denham’s garden party, Miss Lambe is able to have the last word.  When Lady Denham welcomes Miss Lambe and insists that she “must avail [herself] of all the entertainments.  And the food of course!  I had a cake made especially,” Miss Lambe “cannot stay silent.”  Miss Lambe explains that neither she nor any of her friends will eat Lady Denham’s cake or end the sugar boycott until 

every last slave is freed, my lady.  I know you believe me a hypocrite because I am a beneficiary of the very trade I seek to boycott.  But I cannot change the past.  All I can do is speak for those who cannot.  The fact is anyone who buys sugar perpetuates this evil trade.  So if you are not troubled by the thought of men and women toiling all day to harvest your sugar, then by all means, enjoy your cake.  But I must decline. 

In this impassioned speech, Miss Lambe makes Lady Denham pay for all her previous slights, a victory that the cinematography emphasizes by showing all of Lady Denham’s other guests returning unused forks and plates to the untouched cake table.  Miss Lambe, a Black woman, speaks righteous truth to Lady Denham’s nasty-old-rich-woman power in a gratifying nod to the Black Lives Matter movement and recent demands for entertainment that represents more diverse characters and stories. 

More than poetic justice, Season 2 of Sanditon provides Miss Lambe with a storyline that rings with historical truth.  Indeed, women had been boycotting West Indian sugar since the 1790s, including such activists and reformers as Hannah More, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and Amelia Opie.3  Later, Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker abolitionist, wrote pamphlets distributed by the Anti-Slavery Society, the most popular of which was Appeal to the Hearts and Consciences of British Women (1828).  In it she argued that women were in a unique position to help abolish slavery and that their efforts petitioning, canvassing, fundraising, and boycotting sugar were essential services. 

However much gratification we can find in Sanditon’s representation of real historical women fighting for social justice, the span of years between the first nationwide sugar boycotts of the 1790s and those at the end of the 1820s suggests such efforts cannot be credited for the end of slavery.  Instead, as Eric Williams argued in Capitalism and Slavery, after abolition of the slave trade in 1807, emancipation was an effect of market pressures.  The British victory over the French in 1815 had added Grenada, St. Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago to earlier colonies including Barbados and Jamaica.  The Corn Laws passed that same year by wealthy landowners interested in maintaining the high prices of domestic crops they enjoyed during the Napoleonic blockades, however, instituted a sugar monopoly for the West Indian planters that could not hold up again England’s industrialization.  According to Williams, “In 1828, it was estimated that [the West Indian sugar monopoly] cost the British people annually more than one and a half million pounds” (138).  Britain was paying exorbitantly more for its sugar than was the Continent.  The millions of pounds of British goods exported to the West Indies purchased “less than half as much sugar and coffee as they would have purchased if carried to Cuba and Brazil” (140).  Eventually, developments in English cotton manufacturing, coal mining, and iron smelting could earn vastly more in a global market than they could fetch for the colonies’ sugar.  English businessmen decided they could no longer afford to prop up an outmoded West Indian planter economy. 

The 1832 Reform Bill is further proof of Williams’s argument about Britain’s transformation under industrialization.  Its passing reflected the political agitation that had led to rioting in some industrial centers as well as to fears of revolution.  Specifically, it granted Prime Minister Earl Grey authority to equalize representation among the traditional nobility and landed gentry and the newly heavily populated industrial towns by increasing the representation of cities and extending the franchise to qualified men who owned small amounts of property or ran small businesses.  It wrested power from large estate holders and transferred it to working men.  It was only after this boon to industrial interests and market forces that the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act was passed.  While Christopher Leslie Brown has articulated how these interests and forces manipulated British Abolitionism to achieve reform, ultimately it seems that self-interested business, not humanity, effectively ended slavery.  These facts, however unsatisfying, suggest that Lady Denham’s skepticism about the efficacy of Miss Lambe’s sugar boycott is sound.  As a result, we must see the Masterpiece Sanditon as offering a fantasy of revolutionary feminist activism. 

Perhaps more troubling, however, is the fantasy offered by Miss Lambe’s second romance plot.4  Season 2 begins with Miss Lambe rejecting one unattractive, decrepit fortune hunter after the next, until Charles Lockhart, an artist in the Byronic mold who has rented a studio for the season, attempts to gain her interest.  Used to flattery, Georgiana is surprised when Lockhart says he noticed her in the assembly rooms because of her “haughty yet inscrutable” expression.  Our witty heroine trades insult for insult, calling him “arrogant and affected,” an appellation he graciously accepts.  The tenor of their first tête-à-tête is repeated upon their second meeting, when Miss Lambe responds to his inquiry about her “solemn demeanor on this fine day” by saying, “I was in a positively joyous mood, Mr. Lockhart, until I saw you.” 

This pattern continues until Lockhart, at a dinner given by the leaders of the British army regiment summering in Sanditon, challenges the redcoats’ patriotism.  He stands and toasts:  “In 1814, Emperor Napoleon abolished slavery.  He was not just a soldier but a man of vision.  A man who recognized that ideas rule the world, not might alone.  To Napoleon Bonaparte.”  This obvious pandering to Miss Lambe’s abolitionist commitments opens her to more of Lockhart’s manipulation, and he next appeals to the rebellious streak that keeps her chafing under the cautious eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Parker, her new guardians. 

GEORGIANA:  I suppose that toast was for my benefit. 
LOCKHART:  Don’t flatter yourself.  It was for my own amusement. 
GEORGIANA:  And was it worth it?  Given it has earned you the contempt of almost everyone in the room? 
LOCKHART:  Almost everyone?  Who is the exception?  I made the decision not so long ago not to care what anyone thinks of me.  It was enormously liberating.  I prefer to live my own life on my own terms, outside the narrow confines of polite society.  I highly recommend it.  Then again, it takes a brave lamb to wander from the flock. 

In this moment, Lockhart proves himself an adept at reading people and social cues.  He already knows he’s piqued Miss Lambe’s curiosity.  He plays on her name, as have many commentators on Austen’s Sanditon, to suggest she choose brave agency over cowardly victimization.  We need not be surprised then that Miss Lambe, like some of Austen’s more reckless heroines, attempts to take control of her fate.  When she is presented the next morning with a pencil portrait of herself, she immediately confronts Lockhart for his inappropriate presumption.  This begins a series of intimate or unobserved encounters in which Lockhart repeatedly attempts to access Miss Lambe’s emotions, and, when Miss Lambe agrees to have her portrait painted, Lockhart’s diligence pays off. 

After her victory at Lady Denham’s garden party, Miss Lambe succumbs to his charms and allows herself to be plied with wine for intimate handholding.  Further, at the next portrait session, Lockhart awkwardly admits he is painting Miss Lambe’s portrait not “for money.  But for love,” and the two kiss passionately and repeatedly.  When Lockhart tells Miss Lambe that he plans to leave for Europe the next day and invites her to join him “as my wife,” Miss Lambe is electrified, and after she meets him in his studio the next morning to see the finished portrait, one in which her hair, which she tells him her “mother gave her,” is unbound, he asks, “Have I captured you?”  “Utterly,” she replies.  Because of Lockhart, we are able to learn more about Georgiana Lambe, her parents, her loves and fears.  We see her claim her unbound natural hair as a symbol of a hard-won acceptance of her mixed-race identity.  And we see an absurdly foolish young woman consider, despite previous trauma, another clandestine elopement. 

georgina lockhart

Georgiana (Crystal Clarke) and Lockhart (Alexander Vlahos) in Sanditon Season 2.

The last episode, nevertheless, in unravelling Miss Lambe’s romance, seems to preclude the very possibility of racial equality by revealing Lockhart’s predatory racism.  The return of Sidney’s effects from Antigua reveals that Lockhart, Miss Lambe’s cousin, had challenged the island courts regarding Miss Lambe’s right to inheritance.  When Miss Lambe runs to confront Lockhart in the street where he impatiently waits for their elopement, they argue. 

GEORGIANA:  Are you sure you still wish to marry me?  Given that I am “the mulatto daughter of a slave,” who conspired to claim the fortune of a white man who is not even my father.  That was your argument was it not?  That because you are his nephew you have a greater claim to my fortune than I?  This was always your plan.  Your suit had failed so you thought to gain my money by marrying me.  Was any of it real? 

LOCKHART:  Yes!  The more I have grown to know you, the more I have come to ardently admire you.  Things needn’t change.  We can still marry.  Still travel the world. 

Miss Lambe throws Lockhart’s racist legal argument in his face and refuses him, railing against his dehumanizing language and dishonest arguments.  His rebuttle highlights the incommensurability of “ardent admiration” and love, defining marriage between them as a transference of property that renders the mixed-race couple perpetual social exiles.  The episode goes on to detail how Sidney had been in search of Miss Lambe’s mother, who had not, as she thought, died in childbirth.  Miss Lambe is given an orange, lace-edged handkerchief containing a cowrie shell necklace with the assurance from Mrs. Parker that “we have every reason to believe she’s still alive.”  The episode’s final shot of Sanditon features Miss Lambe and Arthur Parker, arm in arm, Georgiana vowing never to think of Lockhart again:  instead, her “only thought is to find [her] mother” and stay in Sanditon a while. 

This end to Miss Lambe’s second romance is troubling.  On one hand, the season suggests that recognition of and respect for Miss Lambe’s mixed-race identity is a necessary barrier to entry for courtship.  On the other hand, Lockhart manipulates the very recognition of her identity for his own ends.  Is the program suggesting that her identity and her susceptibility to manipulation on account of it justify his racist presumption that he deserves her money?  Or, as he claims, has he recovered from his racial prejudice to “ardently admire” her?  Does he?  Is he capable of loving a Black woman?  Is any white man in the world of Sanditon capable of loving a Black woman?  How can we tell?  Ultimately, the fact that Georgiana Lambe remains unmarried at the end of the second season, insisting that she’d rather look for her mother than love, seems to suggest she can’t and shouldn’t find a white husband in England, a suggestion that raises questions about fear of miscegenation and racial mixing. 

In the end, Masterpiece’s use of Jane Austen’s Sanditon offers to entertain us with a story inspired by Regency-era concerns.  On one hand, my belief that that inspiration requires us to sort out Regency era fact and fiction has led me to read the show as a confusing pandering to illusions of white benevolence.  I don’t believe it is responsible to allow ourselves to be told stories about the past without interrogating the extent to which they are true.  On the other hand, in addition to this historical academic work, I believe that as another representation of Jane Austen’s fiction, Masterpiece’s Sanditon encourages us all to interrogate what it is about this entertainment that we find satisfying or not and why.  What itches does it scratch or not scratch?  And what does that tell us about ourselves and our world?  These are the essential questions Jane Austen’s work has always asked us, and for this reason, for better or worse, I look forward to the third season.


1Peter Sabor and Kathleen James-Cavan detail the manuscript history and limited publication in their evaluation of Lefroy’s ability to follow the satiric example of Austen’s fragment. 

2At the time Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield published their essay in 2020, Sanditon had been cancelled after Season 1. 

3Hannah More published “Slavery, A Poem” in 1788 to support William Wilberforce’s first petition of Parliament to end the slave trade.  Anna Letitia Barbauld followed with her “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade” (1791); Amelia Opie later published her novel Adeline Mowbray (1804).  They represent, respectively, the significant numbers of evangelical, dissenting, and Quaker women who played active roles in the abolitionist movement. 

4Troost and Greenfield speculated that in season 2, “perhaps Otis would have redeemed himself somehow, and Georgiana would have joined him in abolitionist activities.”  Season 2 promotes Miss Lambe to abolitionist leader.

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