Portrayed by: Lily Sacofsky
Show: PBS’ Sanditon
This deep dive touches on the topic of child sexual abuse as an integral part of the backstory of the character.
While Jane Austen did not look favorably upon purely pecuniary motivations for marriage, her fans are not shocked to see at least one character actively pursuing such a match. Austen readers can readily list female characters who take questionable actions in pursuit of the financial reward associated with marriage. Young women like Mary Crawford, Isabella Thorpe, or Lucy Steele marry or scheme to secure a more stable (or, in many cases, more luxurious) position in society.
Money-minded single women are, therefore, not a novelty in a period drama. Then, there’s Sanditon’s Clara Brereton.
Clara’s designs on money are divorced from the customary context of courtship. Rather than scheming to marry, Clara is scheming to inherit. If she can win the favor of her aunt, Lady Denham, Clara can become not merely financially secure but truly independent, unlike 19th-century wives. The de rigueur titled man—in Sanditon, Sir Edward Denham—is not Clara’s object but instead is the primary obstacle to achieving her objectives.
Clara Brereton’s pursuit of money, not matrimony, and her perversion of courtship behaviors—banter, flirty tête-à-têtes, and, ahem, more—to defeat rather than win a man set her apart from other maiden schemers. Clara’s behaviors are shocking, but so are the forces shaping her decision-making. Viewing Clara as a young woman with limited alternatives allows us to comprehend, but not necessarily approve of, her choices.
Clara Brereton: A Rat in Mouse’s Clothing?
Clara Brereton is first introduced to Charlotte Heywood as Lady Denham’s “ward.” According to Lady Denham (née Brereton), Clara is “one of many Breretons, poor as church mice.” Clara describes herself as “the poorest of poor relations” while expressing her gratitude for Lady Denham’s allowing her to live at Sanditon House.
Meek as a Mouse
Lily Sacofsky’s cherubic features and wide-eyed performance lend an innocence to Clara that gives viewers an initial impression of Clara as a humble, obliging companion to her aunt, fully cognizant of her dependence and good fortune. In an interview, Sacofsky provided additional detail about Clara’s life before arriving in Sanditon, saying: “She grew up in a poorer part of London and has a background of abuse. She has no parents and a difficult relationship with her family.“
We gradually learn from Clara’s revelations to Esther Denham and Charlotte Heywood that she is a survivor of child sexual abuse. Clara informs Esther that the abuse began in her early childhood (before she was old enough to know what a pencil was) and that the perpetrator was an uncle. During Sanditon’s first ball, Clara implies to Charlotte that she has been victimized by more than one man.
Initially, Sanditon viewers can easily believe Clara is in danger of further victimization as we watch the Denham siblings, also scheming to inherit Lady Denham’s fortune, plot to ensnare her in a trap to ruin her. Esther’s spoken promise to “poison her” leaves us wondering whether Clara fully appreciates the treacherous situation she is in.
Cunning as a Rat
Viewers soon realize that, although she feigns powerlessness, Clara is no frail mouse in the paws of the Denham cats. Clara not only recognizes the game Edward and Esther are playing but has cunning countermoves.
When Edward portrays himself as a compassionate consoler to explain away physical contact that Charlotte inadvertently observed, Clara immediately sWhen Edward portrays himself as a compassionate consoler to explain away physical contact that Charlotte inadvertently observed, Clara immediately sullies his reputation by labeling him a sexual predator. When Esther and Edward provoke Lady Denham to consider ending Clara’s stay at Sanditon House, Clara quickly assesses her surroundings and creates an opportunity to win Lady Denham’s pity and continuing patronage.
Clara Brereton makes it clear that she is not afraid of Esther and Edward despite their constant plotting and Esther’s deliberate infliction of torturous pain, in one of the more disturbing scenes in Sanditon. Clara, in fact, warns Esther that the Denhams should fear her, threatening to ruin Edward, whom Clara views as vulnerable to manipulation (“he is so easily led“). Esther Denham is so disturbed by the encounter that she describes Clara as “a rat who would chew off her own tail if it means surviving.“
Fighting for Survival
Sacofsky expressed hope that “people will see that Clara is doing what she has to in order to keep herself safe.” Understanding that Clara is not only a single, penniless woman estranged from family but also a survivor of child sexual abuse at the hands of a relative casts a different light on many of Clara’s actions in Sanditon.
Other impoverished young women facing the precarity of spinsterhood might languish in the homes of relatives (such as Fanny Price) or rely on connections to place them as governesses (such as Jane Fairfax) without fearing for their physical safety.
Seeking a Haven…
Clara Brereton apparently has no safe harbor other than Sanditon House. We do not see Lady Denham expending herself to find Clara either a mate or a wage-earning position. If Clara loses this refuge, she faces poverty and the potential of further exploitation. Her aunt is aging, and the Denham siblings are not likely to offer their hospitality after Lady Denham’s demise. Consequently, Clara’s best chance at living a life free from vulnerability dependence is to inherit a portion of Lady Denham’s fortune and become an independent woman.
The context of Clara’s possible access to money as well as her determination to avoid further victimization create an unusual setting for Clara’s fortune-seeking. Rather than sitting passively “waiting for someone to come and take her off [her] parents’ hands,” Clara must take positive action and become an agent in creating her own safe future. Sacofsky noted: Clara “has no one else to do it for her.“
Clara Brereton’s first action is to transform herself from a poor outsider into someone who might fit in with the fashionable crowd assembling in Sanditon. She, initially, seems inclined to pursue the traditional route to financial stability. She dresses alluringly, smiles demurely, and accepts a second dance with a possible suitor.
Sacofsky indicates that Clara “comes up with this ‘butter wouldn’t melt’, marry-able persona. She makes herself soft and helpful.” Clara’s helpfulness could also assist her in winning Lady Denham’s favor, setting Clara up as a potential rival to Esther and Edward.
… Whatever It Takes
Clara does not necessarily, see competition with the Denham siblings as inherent to their common pursuit of Lady Denham’s favor. She explicitly says to Esther: “You and I should not be enemies, Miss Denham.” Perhaps, Clara believes the fortune is large enough for all to share comfortably. Esther’s response betrays a zero-sum view of the contest— only one side can triumph.
Realizing the Denhams are not interested in cooperation, Clara shifts into defensive actions to maintain her place in Sanditon House and her chance at the inheritance. She deliberately harms herself to gain some time and inadvertently arms herself with the knowledge she can use as leverage over the Denhams.
Even after gaining this apparent advantage, Clara seems to waiver in her resolve to use it, at least against Esther. Perceiving Esther as a fellow victim of “some unnatural coercion,” Clara offers her pity and advice. Clara encourages Esther to take the traditional escape route: “find yourself a wealthy husband now, while you still can.”
Whether Clara’s counsel is motivated by genuine empathy and concern for Esther or by a more selfish desire to reduce the number of competitors, the pause in hostilities is short-lived. Clara uses the information to goad Esther at the Sanditon cricket match and eventually to pressure Edward to increase Clara’s share of their imminent ill-gotten gain.
Clara’s deliberate decisions to conspire with Edward to ignore Lady Denham’s testamentary intentions and to defile her drawing room floor appear reprehensible and purely greedy when separated from the context of Clara’s bleak past and doubtful future. While abuse and looming exploitation do not justify immoral actions, these factors help us view Sanditon’s Clara Brereton as a young woman who believes she has no tolerable alternatives. Calculated actions provide a safe future for herself are comprehensible, up to a point.
Blackmail as Insurance
Clara seizes her chance to obtain a portion of the inheritance by scooping Edward in his search for Lady Denham’s will. In exchange for Clara’s secrecy about the contents of the will, Edward promises Clara a one-fifth share of the inheritance. While this promise might seem sufficient, Clara shrewdly seeks some form of security to hold untrustworthy Edward to his word.
Clara creates compromising information in the most expedient way available, sacrificing her body once again (the Sanditon House deer park, Dr. Fuchs’ shower bath) to achieve her objectives. Clara’s decisive and aggressive actions secure her a promise of a quarter share of Lady Denham’s fortune.
The Foul Corrupting Cancer?
Clara’s actions after securing the promise of a quarter share are harder to explain. We don’t learn the exact amount of Lady Denham’s fortune in Sanditon, but it is a safe assumption that a quarter share would set Clara up for not only a safe but a luxurious life. I have debated whether Clara’s actions from this point continue to be part of a survival plan or whether, like the dragons and dwarves in The Hobbit, Clara has succumbed to gold sickness.
Esther describes Lady Denham’s fortune as a “foul corrupting cancer,” and we do see Clara striving to increase her share beyond what’s necessary for her future safety. In revealing her pact with Edward to Esther, Clara now asserts that the agreement is for a half share. Sanditon viewers know Clara is making a deliberate misstatement, and it initially feels like a greedy overreach.
Clara could be so caught up in the win-lose competition that she wants to take as much from Edward and Esther as possible. She could be so accustomed to the lavish surroundings of Sanditon House that she wants to hoard wealth to maintain that lifestyle. These possibilities would mean that Clara allowed herself to fall victim to cutthroat competition or greed.
The Best Laid Plans
My working theory, however, is that Clara’s downfall is more closely related to her established character trait, her drive to survive. Consistent with Clara’s portrayal as secretly devious throughout Sanditon Season 1, I believe Clara had a clear purpose for disclosing to Esther her pact with Edward: to improve her chances of collecting on Edward’s unwritten, unwitnessed promise.
Clara Brereton is a woman whose worldly belongings fit into “pathetic little bags“; Sir Edward Denham is a gentleman with a title. In a “he said, she said” situation, Clara would not prevail. Additionally, Esther voices the probable reaction from anyone hearing Clara’s claim about Edward’s alleged promise to settle a share on her: “He regards you with absolute contempt.” In other words, if Edward decided to renege, Clara would face the impossible task of forcing him to pay up on their illicit bargain.
Although Clara has been pulling Edward’s strings for most of Sanditon Season 1, she may fear that Esther is still able to influence pliable Edward to refuse to share the inheritance with Clara. Clara may also fear that Esther would allow herself to believe any denials Edward might make about a deal or a dalliance, once again imagining an impossible “happy future for the pair.”
In telling Esther that Edward has effectively cut Esther out of the inheritance (50/50 leaves no room for a third person) and providing lurid details of his betrayal, Clara has two linked intentions. She wants to drive a permanent wedge between Esther and Edward and to crush Esther’s will to continue the fight. It’s not personal, it’s survival.
If Only …
Like other characters in Sanditon Season 1, Clara’s disgrace results from her characteristic behaviors combined with a failure to foresee a remote but plausible event. Clara’s plan might well have worked if only Dr. Fuchs had not been so skillful (or the donkeys’ milk so potent).
As Esther predicts, Clara trips herself up, and there waiting is Esther, “though,” as Lady Denham notes, “more by luck than judgment.” Just as Tom Parker’s decision to forego insurance despite a risk of fire leads the Parker family to the brink of financial ruin, Clara’s decision to reveal the scheme and treachery to Esther before Lady Denham has breathed her last breath leads to Clara’s eviction from the lap of luxury.
In her final lines in Sanditon Season 1, Clara Brereton asserts “I had nothing to lose.” While she seems so certain saying these words, we know them to be untrue. Clara has lost the safe refuge she found in Sanditon House.
Clara Brereton will survive. The question is whether she will continue to plumb “the boundless depths of [her] venality” to do so … and whether viewers will blame her if she does.