The richest woman at Jane Austen’s fictional nineteenth century English seaside resort Sanditon, is a Black woman. To be more exact, she’s a half Black, half white sugar heiress, and her name is Georgiana Lambe. This is true in the original Jane Austen novel, Sanditon, and is true in the TV series adaptation written by Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones’ Diary, House of Cards) based on Austen’s novel. Other than that, the Georgiana Lambe of the TV series version of Sanditon bears little resemblance to the character written by Austen. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because as written for the screen, Georgiana generates lots of conflict and drama, the best vehicle for telling stories. It’s bad because the writers didn’t quite do so without avoiding the “angry Black woman” trope.
Sanditon is pretty revolutionary for its era in England. The brainchild of Tom Parker, Sidney Parker’s older brother, who is trying mightily to bring to fruition his vision of Sanditon as revolutionizing the travel and leisure industry and taking its place as a pioneer in a still small space where travel is as much about health and physical rejuvenation as it is about rest and relaxation. A number of characters, most of whom are wealthy already (the others are actively scheming to become so by any means necessary) are visiting Sanditon in both the book and the screen versions. Charlotte, the main character and narrator, is perhaps the only exception. A solidly middle class young lady invited by the sanguine Tom after she helps him out of a mishap when he passed through her hometown.
As wealthy, cynical, matriarchal Lady Denham remarked in the screen version, “Miss Lambe will be the guest of honor wherever she goes… no matter where she’s from.” This is because Lambe’s wealth is her social teflon, shielding her from harsh consequences of her behavior in public and private. On-screen Georgiana is stubborn, rebellious, rude, and impetuous- for starters.
In Austen’s novel, apart from Charlotte and the Parker family, the character Georgiana Lambe looms largest. Charlotte makes it abundantly clear to the reader that the level of beauty and wealth Georgiana possesses is far and above that of anyone else in their midst. Because of this, Ms. Lambe is foremost in the thoughts of most of the visitors to the seaside resort.
However “loom” large is all Georgiana does in the book because the reader knows Georgiana only through the eyes of the narrator. She has no actual dialogue of her own. On the screen, the audience gets to meet Georgiana face to face and hear her own words. The Georgiana of the screen however, is worlds apart from that of the page.
The book’s Georgiana is described as “sickly and rich”, “too precious, too sweet, and too delicate for her own good”. Georgiana Lambe as Jane Austen constructed her, was quite the taciturn thing. “She did not speak. It seemed to Charlotte that her only concession to the procedure of being introduced to those she did not know was to smile and incline her head very carefully as if overdoing the gesture could actually break her neck.” No doubt Georgiana was in fact a bit shy, but if you’re usually the richest and most beautiful in whatever room you enter, there’s no need to say much in order to command it. Ironically, it’s this version of Georgiana who ends up coming off as the more powerful of the two.
There is certainly, in the screen version, ample good reason for nineteen year-old Georgiana Lambe to be upset. Having recently lost her father, she is now an orphan. She’s also hundreds of miles away from her Caribbean home. Sidney Parker, who has brought her to his brother Tom’s fledgling seaside establishment, is now her reluctant guardian; he took on the job out of a sense of obligation to Georgiana’s father who at one point, saved his life.
There is no love lost between Sidney and Georgiana; something unusual in this sort of story. Sidney Parker as an older man and guardian in the normal scheme of things, would have either ended up falling in love with Georgiana, or had an abundance of sympathy for her due to her unique and sad situation, despite her impudence. In this case, since Charlotte is obviously destined to be Sidney’s romantic counterpart, so Sidney would be her compassionate guardian. Even if Georgiana was difficult and he had little patience (as does screen version Sidney), he would be understanding. It was surprising then to see his irritability and lack of patience with Georgiana on such naked display in the screen version. In Austen’s version, Georgiana and Sidney barely know each other and we hear of only one interaction when they happen to leave for London at the same time.
Contributing to her irascibleness is the fact that screen Georgiana is being forced to stay away from the man she loves. She is besotted with Otis, a former enslaved American, now an abolitionist in England, who she met at a party where he was a guest and assumed she was one of the servants.
Sidney doesn’t approve of, and forbids Georgiana from seeing Otis but it isn’t clear why.
We do learn that Otis has some failings that bring Georgiana into danger but they’re not strong enough reasons for Sidney to want Otis to stay away from Georgiana. We can read between the lines to an extent and conclude that apart from Otis’ legitimate shortcomings, Sidney is a bit of a classist. Otis just isn’t good enough to be sniffing around the heiress Georgiana Lambe. And let’s be real, Sidney may also be a bit racist. It was the eighteenth century after all.
There is a discussion around whether or not Sidney approves of slavery but it’s sloppily glossed over and becomes a lost opportunity. Having Sidney, a man who considers himself intelligent and moral, come to terms with his beliefs on screen would have made for very interesting drama indeed. Perhaps as the lead character the writers weren’t as willing to risk making him unlikeable as they were with Georgiana.
There is no Otis in the book version of Sanditon though Georgiana does have a love life. It’s an interesting dramatic choice to add a former slave to the screen version and it does lend a touch of gritty realism to a story; and Otis is actually a heroic character. The things, it feels all too familiar and drags Black women into a dangerous and harmful stereotype of having hearts so big they don’t care about their own security. Slavery doesn’t have to be a part of every pre-twentieth century narrative about Black life.
Just as surely as there were biracial daughters of rich white men who lived privileged lives, there were also biracial sons. There were even free Black men of relative means. Otis wasn’t British, he was American and could just as easily have been written as a bourgeois Creole from Louisiana. The supposed love of Georgiana’s life didn’t have to be in want of money or status in order to create an interesting story. Why not make Georgiana someone whose awareness of her fragile social standing as a Black woman makes her less likely to so wantonly pursue such a romance?
And there are hints of racism. When Georgiana suggests a picnic, Georgiana’s white chaperone Mrs. Griffiths informs her picnics are “The preserve of farmhands and savages.” She goes even further, saying It was not only undignified but also “ungodly” for a lady to eat out of doors alone. Not sure if there was any truth to this because I’ve never heard of that in history but it goes to show how the character was being drawn. Georgiana would have surely known whether or not a picnic was appropriate. Sidney too, makes a ridiculous declaration that it is his job to teach Georgiana how to “behave like a lady.” It isn’t that Georgiana is ignorant, it’s that she doesn’t care. The way the dialogue was written it implied complete ignorance on Georgiana’s part and a suggestion of the primitive.
Georgiana also lies, ahem- breaks protocol-, and influences Charlotte to do the same. That is a prickly choice when writing a character who is rebellious, Black, and female. Black girls and women are often painted as unfit for middle or upper class society and as potentially damaging the prospects of middle and upper class peers if a friendship grew between them. Certainly, a white person’s social prospects can be dimmed because of their association with a Black person but because of racism, not overwhelmingly because of the person’s character.
In fact, many Black people have historically been careful in public to not live up to the steretyoes of them to the point that it became a point of conjecture in Black society. Respectability politics, where Black people overly police their behaviors so they can’t be interpreted or spun in a pejorative manner has been debated at least since the eighteenth century. If anything, Georgiana would have been overly careful, as she appeared to be on the book version.
It’s always a good thing to strive to reflect the diversity of society; a diversity that has always been there. Too often though, consideration of the ways in which white women, non-Black women of color, and Black women’s historical trajectories differ seem to be left out of the creative process when writing or directing Black female characters. A woman declaring her independence by getting a job in the 1930s means one thing if she’s white and means something different if that character is Black. Black women have always had to work and the “progress” for them as it were, could well mean staying home, for example.
A white woman character rebelling against norms in the early eighteenth century is progressive and interesting and admirable. Black women during that time however, tended to not be protected and marriage wasn’t the foregone conclusion that it was with white women. So Georgiana loudly and forthrightly declaring her independence as a Black character doesn’t have the same impact. Particularly a Black character with the access to the nuances of upper class life and norms as Georgiana does.
Still, due very much to the talents of Crystal Clarke, Georgiana is a character that the audience does root for. Clarke, an American actress trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and who has already appeared in a number of British productions, has proven herself to be an outstanding actress able to convincingly portray a broad range of emotions. What could have been a disaster in lesser hands is redeemed in hers. The shortcomings in the writing provide plenty of opportunity for both she and Sidney Parker to grow in a second season of Sanditon, which I hope they do make.