Read: How Jane Austen grew up
ITV’s version of Sanditon demonstrates this. Too often, rehashings of the canon are used to kindle nostalgia for a time when everyone in Britain was white, waited for marriage to have sex, and knew their place. Except none of these things was ever true. Sanditon plays up Austen’s particular interest in sex and money. Blackburn, the director, is passionate about historical accuracy (he sent me a 151-page book of contemporary portraits, fashion plates, and street scenes used to develop the series), but resists the idea that period dramas should be cozy. When viewers talk about traditional adaptations, he told me, “they’re talking about the 1980s, heritage cinema, Merchant Ivory, which is a reflection of [both] Thatcherism and Victorian values.”
In the first episode, the heiress Miss Lambe arrives at a ball—and to the surprise of her fellow partygoers (and, presumably, most of the television audience), she is black. This is not a politically correct invention of 21st-century adapters; in Austen’s fragment, Miss Lambe is an heiress from the West Indies. “I’m interested in how period dramas reveal our presumptions about the past, rather than what we know,” says Hannah Greig, a senior lecturer at the University of York who acted as a historical consultant for the series. It is legitimate, she told me, to make stories “relatable” to modern audiences by emphasizing gay or nonwhite figures without sacrificing historical accuracy. “The past is full of people like us. It’s really powerful.”
Because Austen wrote so little of Sanditon before she died, the television series is a kind of high-class fan fiction. It was written by Andrew Davies, the 83-year-old behind the BBC’s 1997 Pride and Prejudice. Its first episode not only uses up the entirety of Austen’s text, but features several men running naked into the sea, and a hand job glimpsed through the woods outside a country house. (Greig was relaxed about this, noting that there is contemporary evidence, for example, of naked sea bathing. “People had sex in lots of interesting ways in the past,” she said.)
Blackburn was attracted to Sanditon because it captures the spirit of the Regency period—the uneasy hiatus in the early 19th century when the heir to the throne governed on behalf of his mentally incapacitated father, King George III. “It feels like the beginning of a different kind of Austen novel,” Greig said. The town of Sanditon is a new settlement—a seaside resort—that has attracted investors and developers. “Streets were appearing every day; the town you know was changing under your feet,” Greig said. Even more than usual in an Austen novel, appearances could be deceptive. Who is really a gentleman, and who just looks or sounds like one?
Viewers in the 21st century want—demand—to see a version of the past that stresses its similarities with the present day, Blackburn said. They want to see Austen rescued from tweeness and coziness. Today’s comparison for the turmoil in Sanditon, then, would be to Brexit, “with huge economic change dislocating people,” he added. In the new settlement described by Austen, “there is huge economic unease, particularly among the upper class, about industrial change.”
For Blackburn, every adaptation is inevitably a reflection of its adapters, and the time in which it is made. “You can’t take the observer out of the equation,” he said. At the same time, though: “Sex, pain, rage, envy … These things are timeless.”
* This article originally misstated the year in which the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice aired. It was 1995, not 1997.