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By Jane Austen
By Kate Riordan
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Written only months before Austen’s death in 1817, Sanditon tells the story of the joyously impulsive, spirited and unconventional Charlotte Heywood and her spiky relationship with the humorous, charming (and slightly wild!) Sidney Parker. When a chance accident transports her from her rural hometown of Willingden to the would-be coastal resort of the eponymous title, it exposes Charlotte to the intrigues and dalliances of a seaside town on the make, and the characters whose fortunes depend on its commercial success. The twists and turns of the plot, which takes viewers from the West Indies to the rotting alleys of London, exposes the hidden agendas of each character and sees Charlotte discover herself… and ultimately find love.
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Foreword by Andrew Davies
In the last year of her life, Jane Austen embarked on a new novel, a bold departure from anything she had done before.
Of course, she provides us with a spirited young heroine and a fascinatingly complex and moody hero, but the setting is new, and the Parker brothers embody a new kind of Jane Austen character: they are men of affairs, entrepreneurs, men who want to change the world they live in and leave their mark on it. You could say it’s a bit like Boardwalk Empire: Tom Parker is trying to develop a sleepy fishing village into a fashionable seaside resort. He’s mortgaged his property to the hilt, borrowed from all and sundry, and now he’s transforming Sanditon before our very eyes.
Young Charlotte Heywood comes to stay and falls in love with Sanditon and the whole enterprise. It’s a different world for her, with a fascinating cast of characters: the eccentric and endearing Parker family; Lady Denham, the rich and domineering patroness; Sir Edward Denham and his step-sister Esther, whose relationship seems a little too close; Lady Denham’s protégée Clara, the poor relation, who has something clandestine going on with Sir Edward – and Miss Lambe, the heiress from the West Indies, Jane Austen’s first black character! Mix in a few quarrels, schemes and misunderstandings, a couple of balls, and a bit of naked sea bathing (for the men) and we have a fascinating set of possibilities.
The Regency era, when we set our story, saw a huge explosion of holidays for pleasure and for health reasons, both at seaside resorts and inland spas – and a great entrepreneurial spirit of ‘If we build it, they will come.’ Men like Tom Parker were making vast fortunes – just as many were going bankrupt from misjudging the market. And resorts like Sanditon were attractive to visitors because they were places where you could meet new people, goggle at celebrities, create a new personality for yourself, fall in love – anything was possible.
So far, so wonderful – but Austen’s 60-page fragment only offered enough story material for half of the first episode of what I hoped to develop into a returning eight-part series. Cue lots of research into the Regency era, and lots of imaginative brain-cudgelling. Lots of meetings with producers – executive producer Belinda Campbell and producer Georgina Lowe – and lots of jolly lunches. ITV wanted to go into production quickly, and there wasn’t going to be enough time for me to write all eight scripts, so once the overall structure was set, we agreed that I would write the first three episodes and the last. From here on, everything happened bewilderingly quickly: Olly Blackburn, the director, and Grant Montgomery, the production designer, outlined their vision for the show, and soon we were casting established stars like Anne Reid, Kris Marshall and Theo James, as well as exciting newcomers Rose Williams and Crystal Clarke as our heroines Miss Heywood and Miss Lambe.
At the time of writing this foreword we are halfway through filming, and I am thrilled with what we have achieved: a period drama that feels utterly fresh and modern – Jane Austen, but not as you knew her.
It was a spring day that whispered of a fine summer to come, the flowers chancing to open themselves up and the mild air scented with possibility. On the green slopes above the tiny hamlet of Willingden, Charlotte Heywood was leading an assortment of her brothers and sisters on a walk. The rain of the previous days had prevented any exercise and, as the eldest of twelve lively offspring, she was excessively glad to be out of the house.
The walk undertaken, but none yet willing to go back indoors, they decided to take their rest in the long grass. The gentle countryside rolled away from them in all directions, peaceful and luxuriously green. It was so wonderfully quiet – the children becalmed after their exertions, the bright birdsong only distant – that Charlotte could hear the soft breeze sighing through every blade of grass. She ran her free hand through it, marvelling at its springiness; the other hand occupied by the gun tucked expertly into the nook of her shoulder.
She was just wondering how she might occupy herself for the rest of the day when a small movement caught her eye. Just below the gathering of Heywoods were two rabbits, white tails flashing as they nibbled the clover.
In a single, fluid motion, Charlotte stood up, shifted her grip on the gun, and took aim.
‘Look!’ cried her sister Alison at the same moment, gesturing towards the rabbits, who immediately turned tail and vanished into the scrub.
Charlotte, much irritated, was about to make a cutting remark when something more diverting caught her eye. Two horses, the sweat on their flanks visible even from this remove, were struggling to pull a carriage up the steep and twisting lane that served as Willingden’s only road. That anyone should attempt this was so unusual that all the Heywoods were soon on their feet, to better observe the spectacle. As they watched, the carriage, which had already slowed considerably, began to list, then lurch, and finally toppled over on to its side with a resounding crash.
Charlotte hitched up her skirts. ‘Quick, Alison! Quickly, boys!’
As they hurried down the hill, more Heywood children – alerted by the racket – poured forth from the house as though there might be no end to them. None could hide their glee at this unexpected turn of events for Willingden was a very out-of-the-way sort of place. What was surely a misfortune for the occupants of the carriage was already proving great entertainment for the younger Heywoods.
When Charlotte reached the bottom of the slope, the coachman was already up and busy trying to calm the distressed horses. There was as yet no sign of the carriage’s occupants but as she drew closer, the door, which was now facing skywards, opened up. A gentleman’s head and shoulders emerged. He looked about him with keen, darting eyes, as though enthusiasm and interest might be mustered even from the most alarming incident.
‘Here we are!’ he cried, with admirable cheer. ‘No harm done! Give me your hand, my love,’ he said to his yet unseen companion, who was still ensconced in the stricken carriage. ‘We’ll soon have you out.’
Without further delay, Charlotte scrambled up on to the carriage to offer her assistance.
Her sister, always more mindful of propriety, was shocked. ‘Charlotte, what are you doing?’ she exclaimed.
‘Steady!’ said Charlotte, ignoring Alison and addressing the carriage’s female occupant. ‘Take my hand.’
The lady, with Charlotte’s help, pulled herself clear and landed very tidily on the road, her fair hair only slightly disarranged.
‘Thank you,’ she said, smiling, her demeanour quite as good-natured as the gentleman’s now she was rescued. ‘You are very kind, and very brave to risk yourself.’
Charlotte smiled back, dark eyes sparkling. ‘Not at all, ma’am, this is the most exciting thing to happen in Willingden for years.’
‘There we are,’ said the gentleman from his precarious perch above them. ‘Neat as ninepence!’ But he spoke too soon for on leaping to the road himself, landed awkwardly and turned his ankle. He cried out, face blanching, but after a deep breath attempted to rally, saying bravely, ‘It’s nothing, nothing at all.’
But indeed it was not nothing and when he tried to put weight on it, he grimaced in pain.
‘Give me your arm, sir,’ said Charlotte, with the usual good sense that made her the secret favourite of her father’s. ‘Our house is close by.’
He took it gratefully. ‘Thank you, my dear – what kindness! I see we have fallen amongst friends.’
Mr and Mrs Heywood were fetched from their various quarters and, as people entirely contented with their quiet corner of the world, were very glad to welcome the newcomers to it. The gentleman introduced himself and his wife as Mr Tom and Mrs Mary Parker. They had been in London and were on their way to their home on the Sussex coast when the fateful turn was taken towards Willingden and its impassable lane. Already the accident had passed into amusing anecdote, at least for Mr Parker, and once he was settled in the Heywood drawing room, his leg elevated on a cushion and a reviving dish of tea drunk down, his customary spirits were almost entirely restored.
The Heywood children, who were much taken with the strangers, had stationed themselves around the room like so many cats, and were now absorbing the Parkers’ every gesture and word with wide eyes.
‘This is really so kind of you,’ said Mrs Parker, smiling gamely round at them and trying not to count.
Mr Parker gave Charlotte a rueful look. ‘We were in search of a physician, you know. For Sanditon.’
She was confused. ‘Is Sanditon a relative, sir?’
‘No, no, a place! And what a place!’ He smiled, the gleam of a rare enthusiasm in his eyes. ‘I am amazed you have never heard of it. Sanditon is, or very soon will be, the finest seaside resort on the whole of the south coast.’
Charlotte’s mind filled with pleasant images: soft sand, glittering water, the saline breeze in her hair. The strange restlessness that had lately begun to infect her peaceful days was stirred anew.
‘I should very much like to see it, sir,’ she couldn’t help saying, shocking her sister Alison all over again.
Sensing a kindred spirit in his young rescuer, Mr Parker asked for various trunks and cases to be brought in. Only a little scuffed and muddy from the lane, one of these contained Mr Parker’s precious architectural plans for the numerous improvements that were steadily transforming Sanditon from an unremarkable fishing village into a resort of the first water.
A card table was brought over to where the invalid was propped and the drawings spread across it.
‘You see, Miss Heywood: here is the Crown Hotel, the shops, new terraces here, the cliff walk – and the new Assembly Rooms here!’ He pointed them out, triumphant.
Charlotte felt as though she could almost see them. ‘Do you plan to have dancing there, sir?’
Mr Parker was most gratified by her interest. ‘We shall be holding our first ball next week!’
‘And you are really building all this?’
‘I am! Well – causing it to be built.’
For the rest of the day, Charlotte remained in Willingden only in body. Her mind had flown south to alight at Sanditon. The book of poetry she took to the upper pasture to read might have been written in Greek for all the attention she paid it, and when, as the dusk crept in, she went as usual to the stables to lunge her faithful old horse, she did not see the stars coming on above her, though the air was wonderfully clear and they were especially bright. Though she did later notice the moon, silvering the water in the bowl on her washstand as she undressed for bed, she did not admire it for itself, only for the astonishing fact that the same moon also illuminated the sky over Sanditon.
Her reverie persisted into the next day, when she was obliged by her mother to walk into the village for some trifles she would have forgotten if she had not been handed a list. She wandered home, scarcely seeing the farmhands and fields she had known all her life, her lively imagination quite occupied with the question of what a fashionable seaside resort might look like, and how she herself might be transfigured by such a place.
Her father calling out to her brought her back to herself. He was signalling to her from the open window of his office. Going inside, she found him puzzling over a thick ledger, a large pile of bills at his elbow.
‘Come and have a look at these figures; see if you can get them to balance for me.’
She stood behind him and ran her finger down the column of black-inked figures.
‘So what’s the news from Willingden?’ said Mr Heywood. ‘What’s going on in the world?’
‘Nothing at all,’ replied Charlotte mournfully.
‘Good,’ said her father. ‘That’s the way we like it.’
Charlotte permitted herself to roll her eyes a little, though with great affection. She was quite unlike her parents, dear as they were to her. If it wasn’t for her father’s annual journey to London to collect his dividends, he would happily never stir from Willingden again. To him, Willingden was the world. Once she might have agreed; now she couldn’t think of anything more stifling.
‘There,’ she said, suddenly spotting his mistake. ‘You forgot to carry one.’ She picked up the pen and neatly corrected the sum. ‘All done.’
Mr Heywood patted her hand. ‘Good girl.’
Some days passed in quiet fashion, as they were wont to in the Heywood household. The weather turned chilly on the third afternoon, the wind coming from the east, and a fire had to be laid in the comfortable sitting room. Charlotte was ensconced in the corner, pretending to read her book, while Mr Parker once again expounded the many virtues of Sanditon to Mr and Mrs Heywood. Since the Parkers’ unexpected arrival, it had become apparent to even the youngest Heywood that Mr Parker’s up-and-coming resort was his life’s purpose and passion. Indeed, it had been observed by more than one person of his acquaintance that it was as good as his religion.
‘Indeed, Mr Heywood,’ he was saying now. ‘I insist that you must come and sample the delights of Sanditon without delay.’
Mr Heywood smiled but shook his head implacably. ‘You must forgive me, sir. I make it a principle never to go more than five miles from home.’
Though some version of this conversation had played out before, Mr Parker was no less aghast. ‘But for Sanditon, sir, for Sanditon with all its charms, you must make an exception!’
‘My husband is ever the enthusiast,’ put in Mrs Parker, with the endearing mix of pride and apology that characterised her role as Tom Parker’s wife.
‘And nothing wrong with that, madam,’ returned Mr Heywood with an affable smile, ‘but he cannot tempt me.’
‘Then one of your daughters, perhaps?’ said she. ‘In return for your kindness?’
Charlotte sat up, almost dropping her book. The movement caught Mrs Parker’s eye, who gave her a nod that was so silently encouraging it could not be mistaken.
‘Papa – might I go?’ she said in a rush.
‘Really, Charlotte!’ Her mother turned in her chair, shocked at her forwardness.
‘Forgive my eldest daughter’s presumption, Mr Parker,’ said Mr Heywood.
But Mr Parker waved his hand dismissively. ‘Nothing could delight us more, Mr Heywood. Of course Charlotte can come and stay for the season or for as long as she likes, can she not, Mary?’
Mrs Parker gave Mr Heywood a smile of the utmost sweetness. ‘If you permit, we would be very happy, sir.’
Charlotte’s father puffed out his cheeks and turned to his wife. ‘Well, what do you think, my dear?’
‘I think it very kind of Mr and Mrs Parker, and if Charlotte is so very eager—’ another reproving glance here –
‘I am, Mama.’
But Charlotte’s father was not yet satisfied. ‘Sanditon, I understand, is not yet fully-fledged, as it were, as a seaside resort? It is, ah, in the process of becoming a resort of public entertainment?’
Mr Parker turned to him eagerly. ‘Exactly, sir, and I have sunk all my resources into the enterprise!’
‘Quite a risky one, I imagine?’
‘If you had seen the situation, sir, you would not doubt. Sanditon is a very jewel of a place.’ His eyes shone with the conviction of a true zealot. ‘I am absolutely convinced: if we build it, they will come!’
That evening, Mr Heywood asked Charlotte to accompany him fishing. Though, to her great delight, he had relented and given permission for her to go to Sanditon, he was not yet easy in his mind.
‘Just a word, my dear. Just a word.’ He hesitated, apparently searching for the right ones. ‘These seaside resorts can be odd places. No one quite knows who anyone else is, where they come from and what they are up to.’
Charlotte wasn’t sure how to respond. She was suddenly gripped by the fear that her father would change his mind.
‘That sounds… stimulating,’ she said carefully.
Mr Heywood sighed. ‘Yes, well, I suppose it is. But, ah, the normal rules of conduct tend to be relaxed, and sometimes altogether flouted.’
‘But if I am with Mr and Mrs Parker nothing bad can happen, can it?’
‘Just – just be careful, that’s all.’
‘Careful of what, Papa?’ Her father was looking uncharacteristically ruffled by now.
‘Everything!’ he said, throwing up his hands and scaring away a shining trout, which disappeared into the depths of the dark water. ‘I know you understand me. You’re a good girl, and can tell right from wrong.’
Charlotte, somewhat baffled, nodded her head and hoped that would be the end of it.
The Heywood family gathered to wave the Parkers and Charlotte off in their newly mended carriage. The latter was in such high spirits at the thought of the adventure ahead that there was room for neither apprehension nor sadness. The world, or at least Sanditon, awaited her. Even the unsatisfactory contents of her wardrobe, now packed into a trunk and strapped to the back of the Parkers’ carriage, could not dampen her mood.
The long journey to the coast gave Mr Parker ample opportunity for further describing Sanditon’s singular appeal. As the view beyond the carriage window changed, the villages more populated and the roads wider and busier than any Charlotte had seen, he kept up a flow of conversation so ceaseless that it was as though the resort’s success depended on it.
‘Now we are coming near!’ he cried after some hours, interrupting his own lengthy description of the new Assembly Rooms. ‘Do you feel a difference in the air, Miss Heywood? I am of the firm belief that sea air is better than any medicine or tonic! And look: there is the sea itself!’
They crested the hill and it appeared before her, a bolt of fine blue satin rolled out for her approval.
‘Oh yes!’ she said reverently. ‘There it is.’
‘Doesn’t it make your spirits soar?’
‘Tom, you can’t expect Charlotte to be as excited by a glimpse of salt-water as you are,’ broke in Mrs Parker.
‘Stuff and nonsense,’ he retorted. ‘I’ll wager that within a few days, she’ll be as keen as mustard on it!’
‘Indeed, Mrs Parker,’ said Charlotte. ‘I am eager to see everything! Oh, what a pretty house.’
Her eye had been caught by a snug-looking place, its garden, orchard and the surrounding meadows quite lovely.
‘Ah, that’s our old house,’ said Mr Parker dismissively, his gaze still fixed on the road ahead. ‘I grew up in that house, but it wouldn’t do – too sheltered, no sea view…’
‘I was very happy there,’ said Mrs Parker wistfully, twisting around in her seat to see the old, cast-off house fade from view.
‘I know you were, my dear.’ He patted her leg absently. ‘Now, we are just coming up to Sanditon House, Lady Denham’s place. She is the great lady of the town, you know. Very rich, and very much involved, as I am, in the future of Sanditon as a first-class bathing resort. There, you see it coming into view now.’
As Charlotte admired the large house of grey stone in its extensive grounds, Mr Parker turned to his wife. ‘Shall we call upon her this very minute, my dear? I should like Miss Heywood to meet her and I have business matters to discuss with her.’
Mrs Parker gave him a reproving look. ‘Before seeing our own children, Tom?’
‘No, well, perhaps you are right.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Indeed, you are right, always – Trafalgar House and the children it is!’
The carriage now entered the resort itself. It made a most fascinating study of the pace of change, with an ancient church and a row of low-slung cottages giving way to buildings that were far younger than Charlotte herself. As they continued, passing along what was evidently the high street, with its cluster of shops and a hotel with a jutting portico, the point where old met new was striking. It was almost as if Mr Parker’s vision of Sanditon was an advancing army; the original buildings knowing themselves beaten and beginning the downhill retreat towards the old harbour and the sea.
It must be said that Charlotte was rather too overcome to muse on the ruthless march of progress. Sanditon was so much more than Willingden could ever hope to offer that she could only stare.
‘Here we are, Miss Heywood!’ said Mr Parker, with no small amount of pride. ‘This is civilisation indeed!’
The carriage rolled on, past more shops. In one carefully-dressed window, Charlotte’s eye fastened upon a pair of blue shoes. Indeed, she was far from Willingden now. The shops soon gave way to grand houses that as yet waited unoccupied, ‘Rooms to Let’ signs sitting hopefully in their large windows.
‘Excellent!’ cried Tom, as the carriage came to a stop. ‘Here we are.’
They had arrived at Trafalgar House, a large, handsome place of pale stone in the new style. Compared to the soft lines and weathered face of Charlotte’s own dear home, it was startlingly symmetrical, every stone square-cut and flawless. As she stepped down from the carriage, the gleaming front door was flung open and two small girls ran out to greet their parents. A toddling boy followed, and finally a nursemaid carrying a round-eyed baby.
‘Well, here we are!’ exclaimed Mrs Parker happily, bending to embrace them. ‘Have you been good? Say how d’ye do to Miss Heywood.’
The girls curtsied prettily and the boy put up a small hand to be shaken.
‘This is Alicia, Jenny and Henry. And the baby is James.’
Charlotte beamed round at them all. ‘How d’ye do?’
The introductions made, Mr Parker, who wished always to be doing the next thing to whatever he was currently engaged in, ushered them inside.
While the servants carried in the luggage, Charlotte was drawn to a large portrait in the hall. Its subject, a dark-haired gentleman of unusually handsome features and powerful bearing, seemed to regard her with approval as she approached.
‘That portrait is of Sidney, my younger brother,’ said Mr Parker, joining her. ‘We’re expecting him here from London in time for the ball. We’re counting on his help to make Sanditon fashionable!’ He smiled affectionately up at the likeness.
Somewhat distracted by the picture, and rather surprised that the two Mr Parkers should look so different, Charlotte cast around for something further to say. ‘And er… what is his occupation?’
‘Ha! Very good question. What would you say, Mary?’ He turned to his wife, who was taking off her hat. ‘He’s a man of affairs, a man of business! Importing, exporting: he is here, there and everywhere. You can ask him yourself when you meet!’
Mrs Parker came over and touched Charlotte’s arm. ‘Let me show you your room.’
Upstairs, she was shown into a lovely room, light-filled and spacious.
‘I hope you’ll be comfortable here.’
‘Thank you – I’m sure I shall.’ She found herself blushing. ‘I have never had a room of my own before.’
Mrs Parker squeezed her hand gently. ‘Come down for tea as soon as you’ve settled in.’
After Charlotte had changed out of her travelling clothes, she went to the window to admire the view from her new room at Trafalgar House. It was a sight quite unlike the one she was used to from the old bedroom she shared with Alison. Though some older, timber-framed buildings remained, others had obviously been cleared and replaced by a haphazard assortment of unfinished buildings that gaped open to the sky. Beyond this confusion lay the sea, vast and inviting in the sunshine. I am here, she thought, smiling to herself. I have arrived.
It was only on the stairs that she felt a tug of apprehension. Below her, she could hear voices. One was Mr Parker; the other, rather loud and commanding, belonged to a lady.
‘A governess and her school,’ she was saying, with evident dissatisfaction. ‘Is that really the best we can muster? And what about the rest of our houses?’
‘They will be taken up soon enough, Lady Denham, mark my words,’ replied Mr Parker, a note of desperation dampening his usual buoyant tones.
‘So you keep saying, but by whom?’ she retorted. ‘You promised I would see a quick return on my investment’.
‘I assure you the ball will change everything! My brother Sidney is bringing a crowd of his most well-connected friends. Once they spread the word of Sanditon’s delights, we will be overrun!’
The lady harrumphed. ‘From what I know of your brother, I won’t hold my breath. And if this ball is so vital, why have you not been here to arrange it? Instead you hare off in pursuit of a doctor we have no need of and return with nothing more than a sprained ankle and another young lady! What is the use of that? We have enough young ladies here. Unless she brings a fortune with her. Does she?’
‘Miss Heywood is a very charming—’
He happened to pause as Charlotte, who had been discovered loitering nervously by a servant, was shown into the drawing room. Mrs Parker was sitting next to her husband, with the newcomer – a stout, keen-eyed lady of fifty or so years – opposite them on the best chair.
Catching sight of Charlotte, Mr Parker stood.
The lady followed his gaze and fixed Charlotte with a gimlet eye. ‘Ah! So this is the young lady?’
‘Lady Denham, allow me to present Miss Charlotte Heywood.’
She dropped a curtsy, at which Lady Denham nodded her approval.
‘Very prettily done, my dear.’
Mr Parker gestured towards a young woman Charlotte had not yet noticed, who was sitting in a patch of sunlight by the window. She was extremely pretty in a doll-like way, with bright golden hair and round blue eyes.
‘Lady Denham’s ward, Miss Clara Brereton.’
Charlotte smiled at her, glad to meet someone of about her own age.
- On Sale
- Dec 10, 2019
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing