Jane Austen’s final unfinished work — finished!

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Rose Williams and Theo James star in "Sanditon" on "Masterpiece."

Jane Austen was chronically ill with a mysterious disease in early 1817, when she turned her thoughts to a happier subject. She started work on a witty and delightful novel set in a seaside town.

She never finished it.

Now, noted screenwriter Andrew Davies (Pride and PrejudiceLes Misérables, Primetime Emmy winner for Little Dorrit) picks up Austen’s plot and takes it in a glorious and satisfying direction, on Sanditon.

The eight-hour series will premiere on Masterpiece on PBS at 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12.

The bold and lavish adaptation of Jane Austen’s final work stars Rose Williams (Curfew) as Austen’s lively but levelheaded heroine, Charlotte Heywood; Theo James (Divergent) as the humorous, charming (and slightly wild!) Sidney Parker; Anne Reid (Years and Years) as the forthright grande dame of Sanditon, Lady Denham; Kris Marshall (Love Actually) as Sanditon’s compulsively enterprising promoter, Tom Parker; and Crystal Clarke (Ordeal by Innocence) as the mysterious West Indian heiress, Miss Lambe.

With four acclaimed Austen adaptations to his credit (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma), plus the Pride and Prejudice modernization Bridget Jones’s Diary, Davies is no stranger to Jane Austen’s story strategies— which makes him the perfect candidate to channel the creative spirit of one of the world’s most amusing and penetrating novelists.

The storyline, as Austen left it in 11 beautifully crafted chapters, is as follows: Tom Parker (Marshall) is obsessed with turning the sleepy seaside village of Sanditon into a fashionable health resort, and he enlists the backing of local bigwig Lady Denham (Reid). Through a mishap, Tom makes the acquaintance of the Heywoods and invites their eldest daughter, Charlotte (Williams), for an extended stay at Sanditon.

There, the sensible Charlotte observes hypochondria, avarice and attempted seduction run amok. Lady Denham, a widow, is playing matchmaker for her destitute nephew, Sir Edward (Fox), who is determined to seduce Lady Denham’s ward, Clara (Sacofsky). The arrival of wealthy, mixed-race heiress Miss Lambe (Clarke), under the protection of Tom’s upright brother Sidney (James), adds an interesting complication. Eligible men naturally find Miss Lambe fascinating, while Charlotte is intrigued by Sidney.

With many promising loose ends and romantic possibilities, how will the young people pair off? Who will Lady Denham designate as her heir? Will Tom’s tourist spa finally catch on with the public? Where will that lead? Davies imaginatively enters this world of Georgian-era suitors, hustlers, and health cranks and boldly tells us what happens next.

Remarkably, even as Jane Austen was succumbing to the ravages of her fatal illness, she chose to lampoon the contemporary fad for tonics, sea water cures, and other medical remedies. Undiagnosed at the time, her malady was probably Addison’s disease, which today is easily treatable. She might have had many years of writing ahead of her, but Jane Austen died at age 41, on July 18, 1817.

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