Sexing up ‘Sanditon’, Jane Austen’s last, unfinished, novel

The evergreen popularity of Jane Austen’s fiction has prompted producers to bring many of her novels to the screen in recent years – not always in the form that Jane, a sedate and pious Anglican, would have approved of. A couple of years ago, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies featured the Bennet girls as skilled martial arts experts who slice and dice their way through an undead apocalypse.

Not too different, in its own way, is ITV’s adaptation of Sanditon. This was Jane’s last novel. She only completed 11 chapters, putting it away in March 1819, presumably because of illness. She died in June the same year. 

TV reviewer Gerard O’Donovan notes that the ITV version fleshes out “her subtle satire with liberal quantities of broad comedy and sexual frisson, but also sowing the seeds for more modern strands to be explored, including racism, sexual abuse and some decidedly un-Austenish incest”.

Are the ITV and BBC competing to see who can most effectively “sex up” Jane Austen? Perhaps the next BBC offering will be a version of Pride and Prejudice set in the French Alps, exploring modern interests like transsexualism, Donald Trump and polygamy, with steamy sex scenes in the sauna. Mr Darcy could emerge frozen from a dip in a (melting) glacier and Eliza Bennet could literally melt his pride with a fur bonnet.

Mr O’Donovan admits the adaptation lacked “the essential Austen qualities of interiority and biting wit”, but it had “a rompish enthusiasm and a cast of intriguing characters”. He concludes: “Whether there’s enough in it to win audience loyalty for another seven hours remains in the balance.”

Given that ITV@Sanditon sounds like Carry On Jane Austen penned by Benny Hill, her most loyal fans will probably have more sense than to watch it just to have their sensibilities violated. Perhaps the producers are looking for ways of cutting expenditure on costly costume dramas by repelling their natural audience. This is make it possible for them to claim that there is no longer any demand.

Surely they must be aware that real sexual perverts are much better served on the internet, while real Austen fans are being disenfranchised. And there is more than a touch of sexual perversion in this obsession with seeing things not in the original – “fleshing it out” with more flesh -- which would have appalled Jane.

It seems the easiest way to garner publicity for any media project is to make controversial claims -- but those very claims will inevitably alienate a natural audience. This ensures that anyone who might actually have read the book will avoid it and critics will be too busy detailing the number and nature of the sex scenes to notice minor issues like anachronisms, inaccuracies, acting, plot and dialogue.

Whatever the motivation, it amounts to the sexual harassment not only of the viewing public but of a long-dead but much-loved author.

If the modern entertainment industry no longer “gets” our literary past, they should leave it alone and create their own classics -- although if they think it clever to dishonour genius, the prospects are as bright as they are.

Jane Austen satirised vice and took virtue seriously -- the very reverse of their worldview.

Ann Farmer lives in the UK. She is the author of By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign (CUAP, 2008); The Language of Life: Christians Facing the Abortion Challenge (St Pauls, 1995), and Prophets & Priests: the Hidden Face of the Birth Control Movement (St Austin Press, 2002).


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