Portrayed by: Kris Marshall
Show: PBS’s Sanditon
A Jane Austen work is not complete without at least one troublesome “family man.” Some are merely self-absorbed (Mr. Bennett, Sir Bertram, Mr. Woodhouse), others overtly mean and greedy (Sir Elliot, Captain Tilney). Whether readers think of the character as imperfectly good or perfectly awful, what these family men have in common is that their character defects cause at least some heartache for Austen’s heroines.
In Sanditon, Season 1, Tom Parker is the troublesome family man whose flaws lead to calamity. Viewers can debate which character most delayed Sidney Parker’s proposal to Charlotte Heywood or which Stringer, Young or Old, is most responsible for the fire. It is, however, beyond debate that Tom’s decision to forego an essential business expense is what ultimately makes the delay and destruction so devastating.
The harder question is whether Tom Parker’s defects and his fatal choice result from misguided optimism or inherent dishonesty. Tom is a polarizing character, with some Sanditon viewers tolerating him as a lovable nitwit and others condemning him as a lying leech. Tom Parker is, in fact, a troublesome Austen family man who blurs the lines between buffoon and villain.
The Two Wives of Tom Parker
Tom Parker is the eldest of the four Parker siblings portrayed in Sanditon. He resides in the glitzy but eclectic Trafalgar House in the center of Sanditon with his wife, Mary, and they have four young children of their own. We discover Tom and Mary in the opening scenes of Sanditon Season 1, as Tom confidently assures a doubtful Mary that their bumpy carriage is headed in the right direction — spoiler alert, it is the wrong direction.
After a busted carriage axle and a sprained ankle (the latter a result of Tom’s blustery rejection of an outstretched hand), strand Tom and Mary at the Heywood family home, we quickly learn that Tom has a “second wife” — his ambitious project to transform the sleepy village of Sanditon into “the finest resort on the whole of the south coast” of England.
This “bigamous” situation creates a natural setting for deceit, and a recurring motif in Sanditon is Tom’s concealing unpleasant information about his second wife, the town, from his first wife, Mary.
These lies and omissions could result from Tom Parker’s sincere belief that the construction and financial difficulties are temporary and a prosocial desire to shield Mary from needless worry. Tom’s dishonesty could, instead, signal a more disturbing character trait, an antisocial tendency to manipulate the truth (including by lying to Mary to preserve his fragile fantasy).
Is Sanditon’s Tom Parker a well-meaning fool or a malicious opportunist, a hapless visionary or a self-serving swindler? A close examination of Tom in Season 1 indicates both qualities, revealing neither an innocent idiot nor a ruthless crook, but someone more complex. A deeper understanding makes it difficult to loathe Tom Parker entirely but equally impossible to forgive him.
Entrepreneurial Optimism: A Regency Steve Jobs?
Kris Marshall has said that “If we were to transpose [Tom Parker] to modern times, he would be someone like Steve Jobs,” a visionary.
We understand that preceding the onscreen events of Sanditon, Tom has attracted substantial financing for his project. The existence of loans and investments suggests that Tom was able to convince at least a few banks and wealthy individuals, including his primary backer Lady Denham, that the Sanditon property development project is financially worthwhile.
In Episodes 1 and 2 of Sanditon Season 1, we see Tom’s genuine passion for the Sanditon project. From his impassioned pitch to the Heywoods to his extolling the virtues of even the sea air, Tom gives the impression that he wholeheartedly believes in the town’s potential as a fashionable and profitable seaside resort. Tom’s barely concealed delight as he describes his role as the principal architect of the new Sanditon also suggests he takes great pride in personally crafting his vision into reality.
Tom Parker’s business sense appears sound when he insists on retaining a doctor to attract what Lady Denham derisively describes as “a plague of hypochondriacs,” visitors willing to “spend, spend, spend” in a spa town. In the same vein, Tom instantly recognizes the marketing brilliance of holding a destination event, Sanditon’s first annual regatta, to draw fashionable visitors to the town.
These qualities are admirable. Even Tom’s aloof brother Sidney acknowledges that Tom is “trying to make a difference … to leave the world in a better place than [he] found it.”
Additionally, some of Tom’s promises that, with hindsight, reveal themselves to be hollow could be interpreted as signs of entrepreneurial optimism. At the time he commits to bring on more laborers and to pay the workers within two weeks, a charitable view would be that Tom is motivated by unwavering faith in his or, more accurately, his brother Sidney’s ability to secure additional funding.
Tom seems not simply disappointed but simultaneously stunned and annoyed when Sidney Parker returns to Sanditon to tell him that no bank in London is willing to extend Tom’s credit any further. A visionary such as Tom Parker could legitimately believe that money would flow more freely if only Sidney could convey Tom’s vision for Sanditon more compellingly.
Other ambiguous incidents in Sanditon are, however, harder to explain away as entrepreneurial optimism. Some of Tom Parker’s actions appear to be either devious or divorced from reality. The entrepreneurial mindset is sometimes described as dangerously close to delusion, and Tom Parker crosses this line on several occasions.
Delusional Duplicity: A Regency Con Job?
In the interview mentioned above, Marshall admitted that Tom Parker “ends up biting off more than he can chew” and feeling the weight of “outside pressures.” The effects of these pressures on Tom’s relationship with the truth and reality become increasingly apparent to viewers as Sanditon Season 1 progresses.
The early hints of Tom’s crafting reality to suit himself are somewhat comical, such as his rebranding Sanditon’s gales as “the healthiest breezes of any seaside town in England” or his slapdash system for keeping track of expenses and income. More worrying signs of incompetence and deceit quickly emerge.
Tom Parker’s business acumen appears more questionable when we realize he has few if any, ideas to actively promote Sanditon. His principal sales strategy appears to rely on his brother Sidney, a notoriously unreliable procrastinator. Even when provided an invitation to a party attended by everyone worth knowing in London, Tom’s inability to promote his own venture is spectacular.
Revisiting Tom’s visionary role, we understand that he appropriates other people’s ideas. While he admits to borrowing and modifying designs from Hargreaves’ Catalogue of Plans, Tom blithely claims as his own James Stringer’s plan for differing roof levels to draw the eye to sea. Similarly, the genius behind the regatta is Charlotte Heywood despite Tom’s loudly claiming credit.
While these questionable tendencies could be forgivable, three incidents in Sanditon stand out as character-defining moments for Tom Parker. None of the three casts a favorable light on Tom’s morality.
First, with the phrase “There doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage,” Tom dismisses the injury that almost costs Isaac Stringer his life. It’s unclear whether Tom’s glib attitude is class-driven disdain for a laborer’s worth or willful refusal to admit any setbacks to his Sanditon building plans. In a moment of apparent repentance for this disregard, with Mary watching in the distance, Tom makes his empty promise to increase the workforce.
Second, following a heated exchange about late payments to the workers, Tom pauses for only a moment before striding in to purchase an expensive necklace. He refuses to bend to the reality of his dire financial straits. Tom, instead, prioritizes maintaining his façade to Mary, disregarding the workers’ subsistence needs. Sidney Parker apparently suspects Tom of using Sanditon project funds to finance a lavish lifestyle. Theo James’ powerful delivery of the lines “Why not try living within your means? That would help!” drives home Tom’s frustrating financial mismanagement as the main reason for Tom’s constant need for more cash.
Third, Tom Parker’s vehement rejection of the umpire’s initial ruling at cricket reflects a prideful belief that his is the only accurate interpretation of reality or that rules should bend in his favor. Ironically, Tom’s refusal to be called out at bat creates an even bigger call out when his unfair treatment of the workers and funding shortfall are revealed to the entire town.
Despite the very public disclosure of his hollow promises, Tom’s disregard for the truth continues until Mary Parker forcefully challenges him by shouting: “Stop lying to me.” Even after a show of contrition to Mary, Tom stubbornly persists in face-saving denial, as Sidney is forced to remind Tom: “I was present at the cricket. Be honest with me. Be honest with yourself.”
Illusory Growth: Still the Same Man
At this point in Sanditon Season 1, Tom Parker seems committed to being a better man. After the demands for honesty from Mary and Sidney, Tom fully discloses his financial concerns to them and later gratefully acknowledges the contributions of others to the regatta’s success. It’s worth noting that this apparent growth occurs only after Sidney Parker has found a way to relieve Tom’s temporary financial distress.
With the outside pressures lifted, we might expect that Tom channels his more noble qualities — vision, passion — into completing the Sanditon project with a renewed sense of purpose and responsibility. Viewers sadly learn that Tom has not, in fact, become more financially responsible or transparent. Instead, he has taken a reckless, secret gamble with other people’s money. In an era of open fireplaces, candlelight and wood-based construction, fire was far from a remote risk.
Tom’s failure to purchase insurance is not an innocent oversight but a deliberate choice to save money that puts his entire extended family in peril. Tom’s final confession of his folly to Mary in Sanditon’s chapel (of all places) suggests a disillusioned and repentant man, but his last question — “How can I face people after this?” — reveals a continuing focus on avoiding personal humiliation rather than reducing the harm he has done to others.
Tom Parker’s fall from the short-lived glory of Sanditon’s rise in popularity after the regatta has heartbreaking consequences for Charlotte and Sidney. Yet, Tom is again shielded from the consequences of his disastrous choices by Sidney’s personal sacrifice. Tom’s jubilation when Sidney again bails him out and “Sanditon is saved” as well as his breezy goodbye to Charlotte grate on viewers; Tom is oblivious to the true cost of his gamble. Seeing Young Stringer and Mary Parker share Charlotte’s sadness provides a stark contrast for Tom’s indifference.
Accountability: The Key to Growth
One hope for Sanditon Season 2 is that Tom Parker will face accountability for his actions. His loathsome decisions might become forgivable if we know he will suffer for them or at least not make them again. He has, so far, shown that in both bad and better times, he makes terrible choices. Emerging unscathed from the brink of bankruptcy often creates “moral hazard,” which makes careless businesspeople even more reckless.
Only Mary’s and Sidney’s scrutiny seems to push Tom toward his better angels in Sanditon, Season 1. If his failings stem from a temporary alteration of discernment rather than fundamental dishonesty, Tom’s being properly held to account may trigger sustained and sincere growth.
With Sidney Parker not returning, two questions worth pondering are why more Sanditon gentlefolk did not see through Tom’s charade and who might hold him to account going forward. Esther Denham prophesied Tom’s monomania and its ruinous consequences in Episode 1 but had no inclination or power to stop him. Charlotte adopted Esther’s view for the space of one conversation, describing Tom as “over-enthusiastic” and worrying that “his passionate devotion to Sanditon” might cost his family’s happiness. Charlotte, however, shifted to admiration and unwavering support, a true “convert” to use Tom’s language.
The answer to holding Tom accountable, keeping him honest, and helping him grow may lie in other characters not allowing Tom’s admirable traits to cloud their own judgment. Passion is alluring but can be blinding. Recognizing Tom’s mix of entrepreneurial optimism and delusional duplicity allows us to understand that Tom Parker is a promising visionary but one who should not (yet) be left to his own devices.
Tom Parker may yet become one of the endearingly buffoonish Austen family men but only if his potential for villainy is kept in check.
I am an American consultant and writer based in Paris, where I have lived and worked since 2001. Following a career as a corporate lawyer, I retired from Big Law in 2010. I now advise organizations and coach individuals on equity, diversity and inclusion and leadership.
I love helping people figure out why they do what they do (and how to do differently) and working to improve group, team, and organizational dynamics. Good fiction provides a wonderful practice field for observing people.
Although I've geeked out on many shows over the years, Sanditon holds a special place in my heart. I've been tweeting more or less actively about Sanditon from my fan account since November 2020.