Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 15 2019 06:00AM

Thirteen years ago, when PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre aired a new adaptation of Jane Eyre, the network offered viewers a chance to buy something advertised as, if memory serves, “the companion novel.” That would be Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 masterpiece, one of the landmarks of English literature.


Beginning next week, ITV in Britain will air a new adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death. As Maggie Sullivan of AustenBlog has noted, ITV is clearly hoping that Sanditon will become another Downton Abbey-style period blockbuster. Since the screenwriter is Andrew “Wet Shirt” Davies, famed for turning Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy into the definitive Historical Hottie, we’ve already been treated to a moony trailer and many, many teasing allusions to All!The!Sex! we’re going to see.


And now . . . the companion novel.


Yes, it seems that Trapeze Books, an imprint of the UK’s Orion Publishing Group, itself a subsidiary of Hachette, will be issuing two Sanditon tie-in books this fall, just in time for the show’s UK airing, which begins August 25. (Sanditon will make it to the US sometime next year.)


One of the new books, The World of Sanditon, is a non-fiction work by Sara Sheridan, whose numerous previous books include a mystery series set in post-World War II England and a non-fiction tie-in to Victoria, another PBS-ITV costume-drama-cum-soap-opera. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) The other new book is a novel entitled Sanditon by -- shall we guess? Jane Austen?


No, by Kate Riordan, a British journalist and fiction writer who has published three historical novels.


Many writers have tried, with mixed success, to finish Austen’s fragment; six years ago, I reviewed most of those efforts. But Riordan’s book is not another continuation of Austen. It’s a novelization of Davies’ screenplay for an eight-hour series that uses up Austen’s material halfway through Episode 1. Yes, this Sanditon is a novel that expands a screenplay that adapts a fragment of a novel. I get dizzy just trying to keep all the layers of adaptation and reinterpretation straight.


I’ve never seen the point of novelizations myself. Why not just watch the movie/TV show? And although Riordan may be an excellent writer -- I've never read anything of hers -- it’s pretty obvious that this particular effort is motivated not so much by a burning artistic drive as by a desire to put the name “Jane Austen” on the cover of a book that is not yet out of copyright.


Personally, I’ll be watching the Sanditon show and skipping the Sanditon book – except for the Sanditon book that is out of copyright. You know -- the one by Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 5 2019 01:00PM

It’s been a wet week for Janeites.


Last Monday, we were treated to the first trailer for Sanditon, the forthcoming ITV-PBS adaptation of the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death. As Janeites know, Sanditon is set at an up-and-coming seaside resort, and so it’s no surprise that the trailer features plenty of sweeping shots of sandy strands, ocean vistas, and attractive actors disporting themselves on the beach.


By which I mean playing cricket! What were you thinking?


Well, OK: the eight-part miniseries is written by Andrew “Mr. Darcy in a Wet Shirt” Davies, who, at nearly eighty-three, seems to have lost none of his – um – lust for life, not to mention his talent for extracting free publicity from credulous media journalists. In the year since the Sanditon project was announced, Davies has entertained himself by throwing the press pool tidbits of chum, in the form of quotes about how energetically he’s “sexing up” this latest Austen project.


I’m willing to bet that the sex in Sanditon will fall well short of the Fifty Shades of Grey standard – we’re talking PBS here -- but either way, it’s pretty clear that the project won’t have much to do with Austen. She’d barely gotten started on Sanditon before illness forced her to stop work, and in his latest interview Davies says he used up all her material halfway through his first episode.


And speaking of Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt. . .


We Janeites had barely finished toweling off after our trip to Sanditon’s seaside before word arrived that, last Wednesday, flooding had devastated the gardens of Lyme Park, the Cheshire estate that played Pemberley in Davies’ iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


It was the reflecting pool in Lyme’s now-inundated grounds that featured in the Davies P&P’s most famous scene, the one starring – oh, irresistible irony! – a soaking-wet Colin Firth in a clingy white shirt.


Although energetic sandbagging seems to have saved Lyme Park’s interior from damage, the flooding, which followed days of torrential rain, forced the evacuation of Wednesday’s visitors and will keep the site closed indefinitely.


Meanwhile, if you’re seeking a watery Janeite fix, you’ll just have to wait for the arrival of Sanditon, screening in the U.S. sometime next year. Or you could just watch P&P again.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2019 01:00PM

The Janeite word of the moment, it would appear, is “fragment.”


* Last week, Jane Austen’s House Museum launched an urgent appeal for donations to fund the purchase of a recently rediscovered portion of an 1814 Austen letter.


* A few days later, the British broadcaster ITV released tantalizing on-set photos from its shoot of Sanditon, the upcoming eight-part television mini-series based on the novel Austen left incomplete upon her death in 1817.


* And yesterday it was announced that playwright Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, an unfinished novel that Austen abandoned around 1805, will have a London premiere this fall.


Among these three fragments, the Austen letter is the least mysterious, since it comprises the lion’s share of a text that was published in full before its physical pieces were dispersed. By contrast, no one knows how Austen planned to finish The Watsons and Sanditon (although I’ve reviewed later efforts at completions here and here).


Given this built-in uncertainty, it’s no surprise that the current adapters felt free to take some liberties. Sanditon screenwriter Andrew Davies is apparently bringing us a rollicking melodrama that, judging from the photos, will feature the gorgeous production values and even more gorgeous actors we’ve come to expect from the company that brought us Downton Abbey. The British air date is sometime this fall; Masterpiece, which will air the show in the U.S., has not yet announced a schedule.


Wade’s theatrical version of The Watsons, which was produced last year at a theater festival in southeast England, takes a different tack, making post-modern hay out of the Pirandello-esque concept of literary characters left stranded in an unfinished work. Wade herself – or, at any rate, a writer named Laura -- shows up to debate matters with her heroine. The reviews were great, and if I had any chance of being in London between September 20 and November 16, I’d be first in line when tickets go on sale next week. Since that, alas, cannot be, I'll rely on blog readers to report back.



By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 21 2019 02:00PM

Production of the new television adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, is moving along even more quickly than I realized when I wrote about it earlier this month: PBS, which will air the eight-part mini-series on Masterpiece, reported recently that filming has begun and – squee! – provided details of casting.


Many of the names are unfamiliar to me, but Anne Reid, who will play the grasping and imperious Lady Denham, is a wonderful actress. And no heterosexual woman with a pulse could object to the casting of Theo James as the hero, Sidney Parker: James played the extraordinarily dishy Turk who seduced Lady Mary, back in the first season of Downton Abbey, only to die inconveniently in her bed. With luck, Sanditon will keep him alive longer, so we’ll have more time to admire his . . . acting talent.


In Austen’s fragment, Sidney Parker is barely a character: He makes his entrance only a few pages before the end, and his hero status is only an assumption, albeit one shared by most of Sanditon’s readers over the years. Thus, Andrew Davies, the revered screenwriter who is adapting Sanditon, had free rein. And here’s what we’re getting, according to PBS:


“Unpredictable, roguish and restless – seemingly never settling in one place for very long – self-made man Sidney finds his responsibilities to his family in Sanditon somewhat tiresome. And yet his cynicism masks a sensitive soul wounded by a broken heart that has never fully healed. In the company of Charlotte, Sidney must rediscover who he is and crucially, learn to trust again.”


In other words, it’s my all-time favorite Regency romance plot: Sensible, strong-willed heroine heals hero’s emotional wounds (usually the result of a bad childhood or PTSD from the Napoleonic Wars, but a broken heart works too). Typically, the hero repays the heroine’s wound-healing by introducing her to passion (see also: Jane Eyre, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.), and although PBS doesn’t spell this part out in its Sanditon preview, I think we can count on Andrew “Wet Shirt” Davies not to let us down, don’t you?


OK, I’m now officially looking forward to Sanditon, despite the many, many reasons to suspect that it won't be very much like Jane Austen and, indeed, may not be very good.


“You know you have a win-win situation here,” my husband said. “If you really like it – you’ll just really like it. And if it’s really bad, you’ll bitch about it for months on your blog.”


What can I say? We’ve been married a long time. The man knows me well.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 7 2019 02:00PM

Jane Austen wrote only seventy pages of Sanditon before her final illness left her unable to work. In the intervening two centuries, her promising start has inspired plenty of fanfic (six years ago, I reviewed a dozen examples) but no screen versions.


Last year, however, exciting news broke about a planned Sanditon television adaptation by revered screenwriter Andrew Davies, of Mr.-Darcy-in-a-wet-shirt fame. We Sanditon fans have been burned before – it’s been nearly a year and a half since we heard anything about the Fluidity Films adaptation that was originally projected for a 2017 release – but it looks like the Davies version is really happening.


The latest hopeful sign comes buried in a longer inews.com interview with Kevin Lygo, director of television for ITV, the British network that is collaborating with PBS’ Masterpiece on the production. (Scroll down to the grey text box for Sanditon news.) Shooting will start this spring, Lygo promises. Woo hoo!


With its strong female characters and “handsome men,” Sanditon is “gold dust for TV,” Lygo opines. “We can keep it going for years.” Obviously, ITV, the people who brought us Downton Abbey, are hoping to see a repeat of that particularly profitable lightning strike.


Despite its period trappings, Downton Abbey was never much like Jane Austen, and there’s reason to believe that, whatever its origins, Sanditon won’t be, either. We’ve already heard talk of nude bathing, West Indian locations, and scenes set in London’s rotting alleys. And now the inews interview describes Austen’s fragment as “the story of the impulsive and unconventional Charlotte Heywood,” making her sound like a Marianne Dashwood type, when Austen’s Charlotte is much closer to Elinor Dashwood: the cool and sensible center around whom a host of crazies revolves. I love Elinor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if ITV thinks Marianne makes for better TV in our overheated, un-sensible age.


It’s possible that Davies is going to bring us a faithful adaptation of Austen’s fragment, followed by a whole lot of stuff she never had time to write (or, more likely, never would have written). Or perhaps the whole thing, from beginning to end, will have nothing to do with Our Jane. But at least we’re going to know for sure within a year or so.


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