The World of Sanditon: The Official Companion


By Andrew Davies

By Sara Sheridan

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An exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of Jane Austen’s Sanditon television series.

Sanditon, the final novel Austen was working on before her death, has been given an exciting conclusion, and will be brought to a primetime television audience on PBS/Masterpiece for the very first time by Emmy and BAFTA Award winning screenwriter Andrew Davies (War & Peace, Mr. Selfridge, Les Misérables, Pride and Prejudice).

This, the official companion to the Masterpiece series, contains everything a fan could want to know. It explores the world Austen created, along with fascinating insights about the period and the real-life heartbreak behind her final story. And it offers location guides, behind the scenes details, and interviews with the cast, alongside beautiful illustrations and set photography.


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A portrait of Jane Austen.

All about Jane

THE MOST FAMOUS British female author in the world, Jane Austen’s work is loved by millions, with devotees across the globe. Her books have remained in print for over two centuries with her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, selling 20 million copies alone. Austen was feted in her own era–the playwright Richard Sheridan said Pride and Prejudice was one of the cleverest things he’d ever read. Since their publication, almost all of Austen’s stories have been adapted for film and TV, though this ITV production is the first ever of her last novel, Sanditon.

‘I read the book as innocently as I can, at first. Just to see which bits I like.’

Andrew Davies, screenwriter

Austen’s life belies her genius. Born on 16 December 1775, during the heyday of the Georgian era, Jane’s love of words began at a young age when she started writing to entertain her close family. She and her older sister, Cassandra, were the only daughters of the Reverend George Austen and his wife, also Cassandra. The girls had six brothers. Growing up, Jane was an avid and witty letter writer, penning an estimated 3,000 letters over the course of her life–a huge correspondence, which was heavily edited and largely destroyed after her death by successive generations of the Austen family, who wanted to protect her memory. The material that is left paints a relatively subdued picture of her as a well-behaved spinster with only a few flashes of her caustic wit. Outspoken women were not fashionable in Georgian or Victorian Britain, and it is thought that Jane’s correspondence with her relations was considered too frank for public consumption. Today, fewer than 200 of her letters remain and most of those have been edited, so readers mainly know Jane’s voice through her novels, which reveal her as a perceptive, funny and often forthright woman. A friend of Jane’s brother, Henry, declared her novels ‘much too clever to have been the work of a woman’, thus underestimating one of the Regency era’s most brilliant minds.

Engraving of Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra doing needlework in the rectory garden.

So where did this enduring favourite come from? We know quite a bit about Austen’s family. Reverend George Austen, Jane’s father, was known as ‘the handsome proctor’ during his time at St John’s College, Oxford. After he married, he became the rector of the Anglican parishes of Deane and Steventon. Jane was born and grew up in the Steventon rectory in Hampshire. The parish was located in a sleepy valley surrounded by meadows and comprised around thirty families. Reverend Austen came from a successful wool manufacturing family but, as a younger son, he did not benefit from the family’s wealth and had to earn his living. The job at Steventon was given to him by his much wealthier second cousin–a practice common at the time to help support less well-off relations. As well as being rector, the reverend earned extra money by farming and giving lessons to local children. This brought the family a total income of around £200 a year–over six times the average annual income for a working man, which was £30. However, it was also far less than the upwards of £1,000 that members of the aristocracy had at their disposal annually. Cassandra, Jane’s mother, also came from a monied family, but her father was, like her husband, a rector, and although she had a small inheritance from her mother she was not a wealthy woman.

Despite the financial pressures, the Austens created a happy home where lively debate was encouraged. They got on with their wider family and, as well as writing to each other, they welcomed their relations on visits to Steventon. This brought news of foreign travel and fashionable London society into Jane’s orbit from an early age. Even as a child, Jane wrote stories and often read these to her family in the evenings as an amusement. She was also a keen dancer–her older brother Henry said she ‘excelled’ at dancing. Dances and balls would have been held in neighbouring houses and at the local assembly rooms in the town hall in Steventon.

Women were not always educated in the Georgian era. A girl’s chance of getting an education depended on the outlook of her parents, particularly her father. Luckily, Reverend Austen was open-minded and wanted his daughters to learn, as well as his sons. This was an additional financial commitment for him–schooling was not free. Despite this, at the age of eight Jane was sent to school with Cassandra (who was ten), first to Oxford and then to Southampton. Here, both girls caught typhus and were sent home to recover. Jane almost died and stayed at Steventon for over a year before her family found her a place at the Reading Abbey Girls’ School, where she studied needle work, drama, French, dancing and music. However, the school fees proved too costly for the Austens’ finances and both Jane and Cassandra only attended for a couple of years. Thereafter, Jane was educated at home by her father and older brothers, something that could only be a successful arrange ment in a close family, like the Austens. Young Jane was an avid reader who had free access to the family library (we know that during his university days, Reverend Austen owned over 500 books–probably more than that by the time Jane was old enough to read). Jane also had access to the library of eminent Austen family friend and neighbour, Warren Hastings, who was de facto Governor-General of India until 1785.

‘I’m sure Jane Austen would be delighted that her stories continue to have such resonance and such huge audiences today.’

Dr Hannah Greig, historical consultant

During her teenage years, Jane wrote three plays, as well as several poems and short stories. She drew heavily on what she was reading, lampooning popular novels and histories. She was always experimenting–and later collected 90,000 words of material from this period into three volumes now known as her ‘Juvenilia’. It’s easy to forget that many of Austen’s heroines were close to Jane’s age when she started to write. Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is only twenty, Emma Woodhouse is twenty-one and Charlotte Heywood in Sanditon is in her late teens.

When Jane became an aunt for the first two times (in 1793 when her two eldest brothers both had daughters) she sent what she called ‘scraps’ to her new nieces–a short col lection of writing to amuse them. Austen scholars have labelled Jane’s early works as ‘boisterous’ and ‘anarchic’ and it is to Reverend Austen’s credit that he did not try to tone down Jane’s voice. In fact, he encouraged her, buying her a portable mahogany writing desk in 1794, which she used for the rest of her life. At the age of eighteen, Jane wrote her first adult novel, Lady Susan, which is told through a series of letters and is thought to be based on the story of Jane’s sister-in-law, Eliza de Feuillide, whose first husband died on the guillotine during the French Revolution. Austen’s career was underway.

A page from the original manuscript of Persuasion–1816.

‘This little bag I hope will prove

To be not vainly made–

For, if you should a needle want

It will afford you aid.

And as we are about to part

T’will serve another end,

For when you look upon the Bag

You’ll recollect your friend’


Jane never married but she had three romances. She fell in love with the first man at the age of twenty. It was a whirl-wind. Thomas Lefroy visited Steventon for two months at the end of 1795 and into 1796 after completing his university degree. Lefroy was moving to London to take up a career as a barrister. The couple met at a social gathering and Jane wrote to Cassandra afterwards, ‘I am most afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine everything most shocking and profligate in the way of dancing and sitting down together.’ In another letter Jane described Lefroy as ‘good-looking’ and ‘very gentlemanlike’. Five days later she said she expected an offer from him (presumably of marriage) but declared she would refuse it. It seems the couple had genuinely fallen in love, but in Georgian England, for the middle and upper classes, money was more important than love when it came to marriage. Lefroy was dependent on a wealthy great-uncle and Jane had no money of her own and no dowry. We don’t know if Thomas Lefroy proposed to Jane before he left Hampshire but, even if he had, she would (as she said) almost certainly have had to turn him down. As it was, his family intervened; Lefroy left and they never met again. Thomas Lefroy went on to have a hugely successful career and became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.

Thomas Lefroy.

We don’t know how Jane coped with the disappointment of parting from this young man, her first love, other than that she wrote to Cassandra that when she had to stop flirting with Lefroy (as she knew she must) there would be tears. After he left Steventon, the only letter in which she mentions him is dated almost three years later when she had tea with one of his relations and wanted to enquire about what he was up to but could not bring herself to form the words. Had she not still had feelings for him she might have been able to ask the question… For Lefroy’s part, when he visited Hampshire, he never again went to Steventon or visited the Austen family. This was the savage reality of the English middle- and upper-class marriage market. In 1937 W. H. Auden would write of Austen, ‘Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.’

It was several years before Jane entered into another romance of any kind. In 1801 Reverend Austen retired and the family moved to Bath where Jane almost completely stopped writing. We don’t know whether this was because she was unhappy or was simply much busier living in town than she had been in the country. The family enjoyed Bath and took regular trips to the nearby seaside during the summers they lived there, and this is where, in 1802, it seems Jane had a romantic entanglement with a minister called Dr Samuel Blackall. Blackall had shown an interest in Jane before, when he met her in Hampshire in 1798. When they bumped into each other, quite by chance, in Totnes in Devon (where Samuel’s brother was the local doctor) he wrote to his friends saying he intended to pursue her. We don’t know exactly how Jane felt about Samuel, though in her letters from the late 1790s she says she expects their relationship to ‘decline in a reasonable manner’, and she certainly doesn’t refer to him with the passion and excitement she writes about Lefroy.

Far later, in July 1813, she mentions Blackall in a letter to her brother, Frank, as ‘a piece of perfection–noisy perfection’. No letters remain from the summer of 1802, the actual time of the romance (raising the question as to why these letters were destroyed by the family), and it seems Jane was right–one way or another, the relationship came to nothing. Some Austen scholars believe that a poem Jane wrote about warring love rivals suggests that Cassandra, Jane’s sister, was also keen on Dr Blackall. Whatever happened with the Austens, Blackall went on to marry a Miss Lewis of Antigua and had no further contact with either Jane or Cassandra. However, the setting of a love rivalry in a seaside town, where visitors would have gone to recover their health, provides an intriguing real-life parallel to the world of Sanditon, as does the idea of a love interest with West Indian connections.

‘It is the cause of many woes

It swells the eyes and reds the nose

And very often changes those

Who once were friends to bitter foes’


With Lefroy and Blackall out of the picture, all was not lost in terms of Jane Austen’s romantic prospects. In December 1802, Jane received an offer of marriage from the son of a family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither. The proposal came when she and Cassandra were visiting Harris’s sisters at their home, Manydown, in Hampshire. Harris had recently come down from Oxford and was five years Jane’s junior, but Jane had known him since they were children and, in Georgian terms, he was a good catch for her, the heir to a large family estate near Steventon. If she married Harris, Jane’s money worries would be over and she could help her family by financially supporting her parents, Cassandra and her brothers.

Harris, though, was not appealing. He was not handsome and hardly ever spoke as he was prone to stuttering. When he did make conversation, he was awkward, came across as aggressive and lacked tact. His proposal presented a tricky dilemma–he was definitely not an ideal match personality-wise for fun-loving, communicative Jane. At first, however, she said yes, but the following morning she changed her mind and recanted on the engagement, leaving the Biggs’s house that day by carriage, first to go to her brother’s at nearby Steventon and then home to Bath. Jane’s niece wrote afterwards: ‘I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that “yes”… I beleive [sic] most young women so circumstanced would have taken Mr Wither and trusted to love after marriage.’ Again, none of Jane’s letters from this period survive, but later, when she gave romantic advice to her niece, Fanny Knight, she urged her not to commit herself unless she really liked the man and said: ‘Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.’ It is advice she probably took herself the night she changed her mind about marrying Harris.

This, at the age of twenty-seven, was as far as we know the last time Jane entertained any kind of romantic involvement. In 1805 Jane’s father died in Bath and four of her brothers stepped in to provide financially for her, Cassandra and their mother. Jane had already sold one book for a pittance by this time, but the publisher had decided simply to hold the rights for it and not actually publish. For the Austen women, there was never quite enough money and they struggled continually to cover their costs. The women moved several times over the next few years–from Bath to Steventon, from Steventon to Worthing and then on to Southampton, always in the company of their family friend, Martha Lloyd. Jane considered Martha a sister. The Lloyd family had lived nearby when Jane was growing up and occupied the empty manse at Reverend Austen’s second parish at Deane, the use of which was within his gift. Martha had a sunny nature and enjoyed housekeeping as well as collecting recipes. After Jane’s death, and in her sixties, she married Francis Austen (Jane and Cassandra’s brother) and became Lady Austen. For now, though, she, like the Austen women, found herself in a difficult financial situation.

Deciding to stick together, Martha, Jane, Cassandra and old Mrs Austen spent their time visiting family and lived in straitened circumstances, only scraping by for several years. Jane continued to write during this time but nothing was published and it was unthinkable for a lady to get a job in order to earn her living, so the Austen women made do with what their menfolk could spare. This difficult period was alleviated in 1809 when Jane’s brother Edward offered them the permanent use of a five-bedroom cottage in the village of Chawton in East Hampshire, in the beautiful South Downs, where he had inherited a large estate.

Chawton Cottage.

The cottage was originally a farmhouse, which briefly became a local pub in the 1780s, called the New Inn. It closed after two drink-fuelled murders on the premises and was subsequently let to the local bailiff. Then the Austen women moved in. Jane lived the last eight years of her life at Chawton, where she devoted herself to her writing, and it was here that four of her novels were finally published–Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma. The praise her work received, after such a long time, must have been exciting. Later, George Henry Lewes, the critic and long-term partner of George Eliot, said that he ‘would rather have written Pride and Prejudice, or Tom Jones, than any of the Waverley Novels,’ placing Jane higher in Lewes’s estimation than Sir Walter Scott, the most famous novelist of the day.

‘Pride and Prejudice is my favourite. I played Mrs Bennet once in the theatre so I studied it. It’s a beautiful book.’

Anne Reid, playing Lady Denham

However, the women lived quietly at Chawton, only entertaining family and teaching local poor children to read as well as running the house. The upside of this was that it left Jane a good deal of her time to spend writing on top of her household duties, which we know included being in charge of the sugar, tea and wine stores.

The atmosphere at Chawton when Jane lived there was later written about by Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his memoir: ‘In that well-occupied female party, there must have been many precious hours of silence during which the pen was busy at the little mahogany writing desk, while Fanny Price, or Emma Woodhouse, or Anne Elliot was growing into beauty and interest.’ While Jane received publishing payments during this period for her work, these were relatively small sums, though she was certainly much better off while living at Chawton than she had been at any time since her father’s death. It must have felt liberating for her to earn her own money for the first time in her life.

‘She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.’

Cassandra Austen following Jane’s death

Early in 1816 Jane began to feel unwell and gradually her health worsened. When her uncle died, leaving his fortune to his wife, thus disinheriting Jane’s mother as well as Jane and Cassandra, she admitted that the shock and disappointment made her illness worse. The truth is that the Austen women during these last years of Jane’s life never shook off the financial pressure of where the next pound might come from, and this financial stress took its toll on Jane’s health. Her reported symptoms suggest that she was suffering from the adrenal illness Addison’s disease, though some medical historians believe she may have had Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer.

During Jane’s last months, in early 1817, she wrote the first eleven chapters of Sanditon, stopping in March. It is unlikely that she realised she was going to die and she probably hoped that she would get over her illness. By April she was confined to bed and, in May, Cassandra and her brother Henry, helped by the Bigg sisters (Harris had by this time married someone else), took Jane to Winchester sixteen miles away, for medical treatment at the newly opened Winchester Hospital. She was in terrible pain and, in the end, she died in Cassandra’s arms on 18 July 1817. She is buried in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral where, today, there are three memorials to her. The first, her original gravestone, does not mention her writing–probably because it was not considered appropriate for a woman to have a profession. In 1870 her nephew raised a brass plaque to her memory, which starts: ‘Jane Austen, known to many by her writings…’, and in 1890 money was raised by private subscription to pay for a memorial window designed by Charles Eamer Kempe. She is now, without question, one of the most famous and well-loved novelists of all time with devotees worldwide.

‘Austen broadened her canvas with Sanditon–it was a departure from the usual style of her novels.’

Dr Paula Byrne, Jane Austen consultant


16 DECEMBER 1775: Jane born at Steventon Rectory, Hampshire, England, to Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Austen (née Leigh).

1783: Jane catches typhus in Southampton after being sent away to school. She barely survives.

1783–85: Jane is home-schooled.

1785–86: Jane attends Reading Abbey Girls’ School.

1787–93: Jane writes poems, stories and plays for her family.

1793–95: Jane writes her first full-length work, the epistolary novel Lady Susan.

1795–96: Jane’s romance with Thomas Lefroy.

1797: Jane sells the copyright to Northanger Abbey, but the book is not published.

1801: The Austen family move to Bath.

1802: Jane is pursued by Dr Samuel Blackall.

1802: Jane receives a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither.

1804: Jane starts to write her unfinished novel, The Watsons.

1805: Reverend George Austen, Jane’s father, dies.

1805: The Austen women move to Worthing.

1806: The Austen women move to Southampton.


On Sale
Dec 10, 2019
Page Count
320 pages

Andrew Davies

About the Author

Sara Sheridan is the author of the official companion to the successful PBS/Masterpiece drama in 2017, Victoria. She studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and lives in Edinburgh. An historical novelist and journalist, she has received a Scottish Library Award and was shortlisted for the Saltire Book Prize. She is the author of the Mirabelle Bevan Mystery series, including London Calling and Brighton Belle.

Learn more about this author