Pain, desire and glitz

The second season of Sanditon ended on April 24, and of its many cruel plot twists, deceiving Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) is the harshest. The West Indian heiress learned at the end of the first season that the love of playful, charming Otis Molyneux (Jyuddah Jaymes) could not protect her from the consequences of his gambling habits. The cartoonishly evil man to whom he owes an insurmountable sum kidnaps her and is racing to Scotland where he can force her to marry him, when her overbearing guardian Sydney Parker (Theo James) rescues her in a daring manner (he jumps from his careening carriage to hers). In the second season, Miss Lambe is clear-eyed about how her wealth and race conspire against her chances at love, and she faces this truth with biting wit and moral clarity. She gleefully puts fortune hunter after fortune hunter in his place, and in a rejoinder to being bounced around a carriage in Season One, she steals a carriage in Season Two and goes on a joy ride with the new ingénue Alison Heywood (Rosie Graham). Inspired by Otis, she is leading a boycott of West Indian sugar. She has no interest in love, doesn’t want to marry, is happy to be reunited with an equally sadder but wiser Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), and deftly handles the racist snipes of Lady Denham (Anne Reid). And then the writers put an irresistible man in her path, a sexy artist who very much wants to get past the walls she has erected, and when this self-contained woman, encouraged by a friend she trusts, lets him in, she is betrayed again. I like Sanditon better than its glitzier Netflix counterpart Bridgertonbut the latter understands its contract with its viewers. Sanditon has taken all of Jane Austen’s cautionary tales and too few of her domestic felicities.

The series, shot primarily in Somerset, is lovely. Its colors look gently, genteelly aged, and the interiors feel like extensions of the story and not just backdrops to the action. And for all that the men of Sanditon are frustrating – mostly incompetent, stupid, or dwelling on past tragedies – they have some appeal. It is just too bad that the young women are often stuck in the backwash of their inadequacy. After the script treats Charlotte Heywood so cruelly, crushing her chance at love with Sydney Parker because of his brother Tom’s (Kris Marshall) incompetence, a kinder, softer landing than the one she receives would make sense. Instead, she is bossed about, patronized, lied to and manhandled by two men who profess to love her. It is as if the series can imagine mature, self-actualized young women but cannot find men good enough for them. It is telling that the happily-ever-after of this season goes to neither of the rightly jaded women but to the very traditional wide-eyed young girl who is duped by pretty words. Here, again, Bridgerton knows better than its more staid counterpart how to manage stories about cynical women who are not enthralled with the idea of ​​marriage. An “I hate you/I want you” tug-of-war story is at the center of Season Two, but the showrunner Chris Van Dussen knows how to treat Simone Ashley’s Kate Sharma, giving her a partner who strives to be with her.

Sanditon is interested in the historical moment its characters are living through and the fact that its wealthiest resident is Black is handled as creatively in the second season as it is in the first. The claim that Napoleon freed the slaves made me want to send producers and writers alike back to school, but Charlotte’s outrage about the slave trade in Season One does carry over and amplify in Season Two. Most importantly, at a time when the idea that “representation matters” hovers over every period drama, Sanditon gives us a fully realized heroine in Miss Lambe, one with friends who genuinely love her and a story arc that shows her as funny, kind, determined and accessible in turn. The fourth episode, directed by Ethosheia Hylton, highlights the anxiety Miss Lambe feels about her fortune without being didactic, and when she confronts Lady Denham and her towering sugar-filled cake, Georgiana is free to imagine a life after Otis and opens up to Alexander Vlahos’s Charles Lockhart.

The same sentiment behind “representation matters” continues to fuel interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraits that feature black and mixed-race figures. Perhaps one reason the treatment of Miss Lambe is so frustrating is that the story of her portrait being painted is the most seductive and convincing plotline of the season. Miss Lambe, standing alone with her trademark self-possession, reminded me of the eighteenth-century “Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom”, attributed to Jeremias Schultz. Acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2020, the painting is rare because the sole figure is a woman of color who is looking directly at the viewer. The painting has been the focus of careful analysis by art historians, botanists and collectors. Sanditon does not replicate this portrait, but the unknown sitter, a woman in the kind of finery Miss Lambe could easily afford (she is dressed in silk and lace, richly adorned with a double strand necklace of pearls and matching bracelets), makes the fictional character feel like part of a larger story about how race and the past are represented.

It may be unfair to compare Bridgerton and Sanditon, even if they were released within a week of one another this year (you could binge-watch the former and take your time with the latter). I’ve read my Alexander Pope. He’s right that “A perfect judge will read each work of wit/ With the same spirit that its author writ”. But it is impossible to watch Sanditon and not think of Bridgerton and what the two series owe to one another. Previous Austen dramatizations have an outsized impact on how fans of regency culture think of the period, and the Netflix series pays homage to this. If you have seen Colin Firth emerging from that pond with his shirt soaked through and Theo James rising up from the ocean wearing nothing but confidence, then you will recognize that Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton joins that tradition. In fact, Bailey’s performance keeps the Eton Mess that is Season Two on some sort of track. He sizzles when he asks, “Do you think there is a corner of this earth that you could travel to that would be far away enough to free me from this torment?” It’s a foregone conclusion that there will be nudity and intimacy in the show, but for readers of the genre, speeches like Bailey’s – part pain, part desire – are probably more satisfying.

To take the series on its own terms is to understand that it is a thoroughly modern confection played as a historical drama, and in order to achieve that, it will go over the top in every direction all at once. Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie), a Mary Wollstonecraft devotee, is there for women who want this world but eschew its gender politics. Viewers interested in her will travel into the radical world of politics with pamphlets and class clash. Benedict (Luke Thompson), whose charming bi-curious impulses seem to have been squashed to make him straight enough for his turn at hero, will take viewers into a bohemian art world. Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), also known as Lady Whistledown, moves through the world of commerce, market stalls and bargaining with printers. The central love story, reconceived as a love triangle, has a great deal to compete with for the viewers’ attention.

There have been rich and varied critiques by South Asian women about how Bridgerton conceives of the Sharma sisters – from their last name, to their use of nicknames, to anachronistic cultural references – in articles, reviews and on social media. Within those critiques there has also been joy at seeing two Indian women in a world that has remained overwhelmingly white, and that joy has been heightened by the fact that the women have darker complexions than those usually cast as love interests. I was interested to see how a series that can tell itself a fairytale about Black progress (as it does in the first season) and about how love can create a multicultural world, would address Britain’s violent history. Where in this world could Kathani Sharma discuss the East India Company with any of her suitors? The critiques of the show are wholly legitimate, but instead of putting all hopes for meaning in the hands of a series designed for broad appeal, one that allows Bombay to stand in for an entire country, we should perhaps rather hope that Bridgerton will open the door for other stories and worlds, created by artists who can build on its audiences.

Patricia A. Matthewis Associate Professor of English at Montclair State University and Visiting Associate Professor at SUNY Buffalo. She is writing a book about gender and race in British abolitionist literature and material culture

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