Telling Georgiana Lambe’s Story in Sanditon Season 2
When Sanditon was greenlit for a second season, the show’s producers saw an opportunity to tell the story of Georgiana Lambe in a more authentic way, as the protagonist of her own story. To honor the lived experience of a character with Georgiana’s history required a diverse team, from historical advisors to writers to directors, and joining the team as script consultant for MASTERPIECE was Dr. Sharon D. Johnson Ph.D, a psychologist, writer and scholar of film and television. In a conversation with MASTERPIECE, Johnson discussed the character of Georgiana and the work done to honor the truth of her perspective as a woman of color.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your role as script consultant on Sanditon Season 2, and your process in working to ensure that a fuller, truthful story of Georgiana, a story that’s through her perspective, is told?
The Georgiana character in the novel was introduced just before the end of Jane Austen’s 11-chapter draft, and so a lot had to be developed around Georgiana. My priority was remembering Jane Austen, and what her goals are in her novels. You know that there is going to be some conflict in the female characters about marriage, about women’s roles, and there’s going to be someone’s wedding at the end. For a character with Georgiana’s background, whose mother was an enslaved Black woman and whose father was the slave owner, I wanted to keep the authenticity of what that background would really mean for a character like Georgiana—understanding that someone with her experience would have a very different perspective on things like freedom. It may have some overlap with her friend, Charlotte, but it would be a particularly different perspective.
Freedom, for Georgiana, was not just fighting against a gender role—it was fighting against an institutional practice, and that’s the important thing to keep alive. It’s easy to fall into Jane Austen’s rhythm, but we have to remember that this is the first time a Black character has been introduced, and so the rhythm’s not going to quite be the same. And it means being reminded of what this institution of enslavement really was, and the realistic fallout for a character such as Georgiana.
As [Georgiana actress] Crystal Clarke has said, what was important for her was this history that actually happened and seems to keep repeating in our current time. So it was about keeping that thread of reality while Georgiana is living in that certain social reality. She has a different perspective on it, and so she shouldn’t just be a character who happens to be Black. The reality of her experience had to be present and had to be maintained throughout. So that’s really what was important to me.
A powerful moment for Georgiana comes in Episode 4, when she stands up to Lady Denham at the garden party and rejects the cake made from the sugar she’s boycotting. There’s a lot of complexity in that scene. Did it take work to achieve the sort of authenticity you were looking for?
In that moment around the sugar boycott, at the garden party, it was particularly important to calibrate what’s going on. First of all, her standing up to Lady Denham is very different from Charlotte or anyone else standing up to Lady Denham, because of the social construct. Everyone knows that for the most part, the Black people who were there in Regency-era England were there because of this enterprise [of slavery], and so there’s this cognitive dissonance that the Britons have to have, because they’re living off of that wealth. The Black people among them are on the oppressed end of the spectrum, and so every scene where Georgiana has to really confront Lady Denham one-on-one is crucial, and particularly so with the sugar boycott, because of what it really means: …Her father made that money because he owned and worked her mother and others. And so yes, of course, on his deathbed he should have a “come to Jesus” moment and say, “You know what? Let me give my child this money because she should have it.”
But I think that’s what brings the tension, because you see the point of view from both sides of the coin. Of course Lady Denham would think the way she does, because you don’t want to think too hard about your money and where it comes from. And Georgiana’s reality is, “Yeah, I know I’m here in this fine frock, socializing amongst you, however…” Her consciousness is very different from, say, Charlotte’s consciousness. Charlotte is thinking of the intersection of her class and her gender, and Georgiana is thinking of the intersection of her race, her class, and her gender. And even though she is an heiress, what’s the thing that is used to bring her down a peg? Reminding her, “Yeah, but you’re the child of an enslaved person.”…So that’s the history, the factual stuff that I wanted to make sure was always present in everyone’s mind.
It must also play out in so many different ways along her journey in Season 2, from having guardians to being pressured to marry, and having an authentic need to resist these forces…
It was a matter of, again, keeping the authenticity. Not making her obstinate just to be obstinate, but because there’s a real reason she would be suspicious of Sidney, a reason for her resistance to any white person trying to be her caretaker/custodian. The work was about paying attention to the calibration for Georgiana, to keep that real human reason behind her mistrust or obstinacy. And then we see how that melts away with the [other] characters she becomes closer to, Charlotte and Arthur, as Georgiana slowly begins to trust people, as she does over Season 2. She’s not just rebellious and unlikable as a character, you understand. She feels she has a lot to prove. She feels she has a lot to protect. And she feels that no one else but her can do that, until she gradually learns to let other people in. It’s important to be able to see Georgiana’s arc, because if you’re going to introduce a character who’s different from the other characters, you don’t want it to be a type—you want it to be a full human character. It was really just about the constant vigilance over this character’s place in the story. It’s daunting, but at the same time it’s fulfilling as you’re doing it, as you’re focusing on a singular character and imbuing the character with all of these things. And that’s what all characters deserve, I think.
Sharon D. Johnson, PhD is a screenwriter, journalist, depth psychologist, and scholar of television, film, and African American arts; literature; and culture. She has been a published critical and feature story writer for over 30 years, and a member of the Writers Guild of America, West since 1993. She served as Chair of the Writers Guild Committee of Black Writers from 1999 to 2003.