The Inside Scoop on Sanditon Season 2 History
Declining a dance partner, pursuing a job instead of a husband, and little girls in breeches—how much of what we see in Sanditon Season 2 is historically accurate? Dr. Hannah Greig from the University of York is one of the historical advisors on set. She’s an expert in 18th and early 19th century Britain and her consulting credits include Poldark and Bridgerton. From reckless gambling debts to hot-air balloons, Greig offers surprising insights on elements of Regency history that appear in Season 2.
Note: If you’ve not yet watched Season 2, this feature contains significant spoilers.
Options for Ladies Outside Marriage
Love seems to be off the table for Charlotte in Season 2, so what are her choices? “Opportunities for living a life outside marriage are narrower the higher up the social ladder,” says Greig. “There are very wealthy families having unmarried women maintained and retained within a kind of nuclear family network. …But governess is the main form of employment for women like Charlotte from a respectable gentry family who need an income. …It was proper for such a woman to live with a family of equivalent rank but occupy this odd position between more than a servant but not an equal. …It’s a sort of double hit in that you’re both unmarried in a society that privileges marriage, but also your family isn’t wealthy enough to support you. And you don’t always find the handsome employer who happens to be single!”
Just Say No to the Dance?
After learning of a soldier’s lies, Alison confronts him at the ball and declines his offer to dance. Greig believes there was flexibility regarding a woman’s right to turn down a dance partner. “It’s perfectly fine to say that a dance is reserved for somebody else, your dance card is full or you’re sitting this one out. It’s one of the moments of power a woman does have, to refuse,” she says. “The nature of the lived experience is always perhaps more varied than the rule books suggest.”
Leonora in Breeches
Nine-year-old Leo’s ambitions to be half pirate, half soldier seem to fly in the face of how period society would expect a little girl to be raised. “I think she’s a really important reminder that people’s lives in the past are more varied than we sometimes imagine,” says Greig. “History only answers the questions you ask of it. And if you were to ask if there were children like Leo, if we started to look, we might find them. Families who lived slightly different lives or young girls who fought expectations that they would grow up into some fine young lady. …There are stories of people from earlier in the 18th century who were women living as men, of people cross-dressing, and it’s a reminder that the history is buried, and human experience is buried, and not everything is as modern or as new as we might think.”
Both Men and Women Gambled
In Season 2, Tom Parker rolls the dice with Colonel Lennox even though he already owes great sums to Sidney’s widow. In truth, the Regency era saw the upper classes run up significant debt at cards or other games, money matters often seen as something beneath them. “For some members of society, it is a world of gambling and card playing and betting on things,” says Greig. “There’s certainly stories of incredibly wealthy aristocrats running up vast debts at gaming tables, both men and women. …Roulette was a very common game, billiards, and picqet, which is a bit like poker. And even as you move down the social scale into the world of the gentry or middle class, perhaps the world we see a bit more of in Sanditon and in Austen’s novels, there’s a lot of [card games like] Flutter or Whist at parties. …People bet on everything really.”
The Wow Factor of Hot Air Balloons
Would Charlotte have had the opportunity to ride in a military observation balloon? In fact, the first manned hot-air balloon took off from French soil in 1783 and France was the first to use balloons for aerial reconnaissance a year later. “Oh, balloons are very exciting at the time in Regency England and slightly earlier, in that they are a huge technological innovation,” says Greig. “There’s loads of images and stories about balloons and people going up in balloons with huge crowds watching. You have to imagine the kind of excitement for something so different from anything you’ve seen before.”
The Militia’s Comings and Goings
Lady Denham harasses Tom Parker with news the army is “about to be gone in a puff of smoke. Instead of benefiting Sanditon financially, the opposite is true!” According to Greig, “The militia has a reputation for being transitory. They visit for a time and then leave, which invites suspicion they’ll flee responsibility. Either flee engagements and romances or flee financial obligations. A lot of [militia] business was done on credit. A lot of shopping, a lot of exchanges were done on the basis of take in now and pay later. It invites the stories of caddish men who just leave in the middle of the night.”
Assembly Rooms: Temples of Sociability
Public spaces in Regency society and Austen novels are venues for romance and courtship because they are designed for eligible singles to meet and mingle. “By the early 1800s, most towns have [an assembly room] and they’re a sort of temple to sociability,” says Greig. “They bring socializing away from private homes and into a public space. People can buy a ticket and attend. If you’re new in town, you’ll be ushered to the master of ceremonies to introduce you to others of similar social status.” Masters of ceremony like Tom Parker “know everybody and it’s their job to ensure people have easy social interactions, that the assembly room is polite and well mannered, and that everybody can enjoy themselves and feel like they’re amongst equals.”
Mixed Race Aristocrats
Miss Lambe is the only Black character in Jane Austen’s stories, described as a “young West Indian…[with] an immense fortune, richer than all the rest.” Such aristocrats were unusual in Regency society, but not unheard of. “We see it as unexpected in a period drama, but it’s in an Austen novel because it was actually part and parcel of a society Austen was very aware of and writing about,” says Greig. Georgiana’s supposed £100,000 fortune is “a substantial wealth and in keeping with the size of fortunes being made through West Indies plantations and other kinds of colonial economic exploitations.” No wonder poor Georgiana is besieged by fortune hunters!
Boycotting Britain’s Sweet Tooth
Many in Sanditon—save Lady Denham—abstain from sugar. “The sugar boycott was a successful form of consumer activism that continued into the early 1800s, where people involved in the abolition movement felt it was really important to boycott goods produced by enslaved labor,” says Greig. “There was a lot of supporting work around [the boycott]. A lot of pamphlets produced; speeches given. It’s a high-profile moment of political activism that women were especially involved with. It’s an important part in the story of abolition and it’s very important in terms of women’s position in history as political activists.”
Dr. Hannah Greig is a historian of 18th and early 19th century Britain at the University of York. She’s consulted on TV series including Poldark and Bridgerton, and on films like The Favourite. Greig also co-hosts the History Film Club podcast found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Follow her on Twitter.