Portrayed by: Kate Ashfield
Show: PBS’ Sanditon
Jane Austen readers encounter our fair share of sensible spouses saddled for life with a silly companion. In these mismatched marriages, it is almost exclusively the husband who is endowed with reasonably good sense while the wife indulges her frail nerves (Mrs. Bennett) or slighted pride (Mary Musgrove) or general idleness (Lady Bertram). These sensible husbands have their own methods for coping with the caprices of their spouses, including insulating themselves by hiding in their offices, engaging in masculine outdoor activities, or setting sail on long voyages.
With Sanditon’s Mary Parker and her husband, Tom, these typical gender roles are reversed. Mary Parker is the steadying force, while Tom Parker indulges his entrepreneurial passion. With the sensible spouse being a wife and mother to four young children, Mary’s methods for coping with spousal silliness are more constrained than those available to husbands.
Remembering that Mary Parker, despite her apparent good sense, is a Regency-era wife helps us recognize and perhaps admire more easily the ways Mary tries to cope with Tom’s folly. Understanding this context may also help Sanditon viewers be more forgiving when Mary’s choices appear less than sensible.
Mary Parker, The Good Wife
Mary Parker is the good-natured wife of Tom Parker, the promoter who is seeking to transform Sanditon into a fashionable seaside resort. The Parkers have four young children and live in a luxurious residence, where they host Sanditon’s heroine Charlotte Heywood for the summer season.
Mary is one of the few characters in Sanditon whose positive qualities vastly outweigh any negative. She is kind and loving. In the Heywood home, we see Mary happily holding a young Heywood sibling in her lap, and all her interactions with her own children indicate affection and patience. She also seems to be well-appreciated by Tom’s three siblings, with Sidney Parker enviously confessing he would “do anything to be blessed with a wife such as” Mary.
Mary Parker also seems to be genuine and unpretentious. She’s pleased to learn that Charlotte will not put on airs when accepting dance partners. In contrast to the lady-like restraint typically seen in period dramas, we see Mary gesturing enthusiastically to greet Sidney Parker when he first appears in Sanditon. Mary runs giggling arm-in-arm at the regatta with Charlotte Heywood and cheers and jumps about to root on the Parker brothers rowing team.
We know very little about Mary prior to her marriage to Tom Parker. Mary tells Charlotte that Tom proposed to her at a ball in Weymouth and that she just knew he was the one. Throughout Sanditon Season 1, Mary and Tom do seem to love each other genuinely. We have numerous indications that Tom cherishes Mary and her good opinion.
Mary does, however, lament: “I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I fell in love with Tom.” Although this statement follows a general observation on marriage, it could also indicate that she was ill-informed about Tom Parker’s plans for Sanditon. Mary agrees with Charlotte’s description of this uncertainty as “thrilling” but adds that it is also “exhausting.” Mary Parker is tired.
Tirelessly Managing Tom
As Tom Parker‘s shenanigans become more apparent in Sanditon, we begin to understand the source of Mary’s exhaustion, Tom’s increasing devotion to the Sanditon project. Mary candidly expresses her concern to Charlotte, saying: “Sometimes I fear he’ll keep adding and obsessing until, one day, he drops down dead with the plans still clutched in his hand.” Rather than passively giving in to this fear, Mary does attempt to manage Tom’s obsession and its consequences in various ways.
In a Twitter Q&A, Kate Ashfield (using the SanditonGuest account) indicated that, compared to the Jane Austen fragment, in Sanditon, Mary is “a little more daring and not quite so subservient.” Her strategies for coping with Tom’s preoccupation with his “second wife” range from more traditional “wifely” behaviors to more assertive actions.
The Soft Touch
One of Mary’s strategies is to refocus Tom with gentle hints about what’s important. On the couple’s return to Sanditon after a trip in search of a doctor, Mary asks Tom whether he’s intent on calling on Lady Denham “before we see our own children.” She encourages him to calm down and “have some breakfast” when, in her view, he is overly agitated about the planning of the first ball. We also see Mary using positive reinforcement by praising Tom for making time for an evening stroll at the beach: “How glad I am to have my husband back.”
Mary also acts as a mediator, keeping the peace with various people who rotate around Tom. As Lady Denham, Tom Parker’s primary backer in the Sanditon venture, becomes agitated waiting for Miss Lambe to arrive at a luncheon, Mary attempts to keep Lady Denham calm, first, by suggesting that Miss Lambe is not at fault and, then, by complimenting Lady Denham. Mary also gently reminds Sidney Parker that Tom relies on Sidney’s help, without initially understanding the full extent of Tom’s reliance.
While these softer behaviors are not particularly surprising from a “good wife,” Mary Parker challenges Tom and others in ways we might not expect from a Regency-era wife.
Mary dares to insert doses of realism to counter Tom’s fervor. She wryly tells the Heywoods her “husband is ever the enthusiast” and tells Tom he “can’t expect Charlotte to be as excited by a glimpse of seawater as” he is. She is visibly unimpressed upon being introduced to Dr. Fuchs; his campy antics seem to put her off. She also reacts tepidly to Tom’s over-enthusiastic description of “his” idea for the Sanditon regatta.
Mary also dares to reprimand both Lady Denham and Sidney when they act inappropriately towards Charlotte. Mary cries out a disapproving “Lady Denham!” when the latter insists Charlotte must be in Sanditon in search of a wealthy husband. She uses the same disapproving tone to correct Sidney when he inquires whether Charlotte is the new maid. These incidents suggest that Mary is not willing to tolerate bad behavior simply to keep Tom’s backers happy.
Doubting but Trusting
Mary Parker may also be exhausted because of the effort she has to put into managing her growing doubts and continuing to trust Tom despite mounting evidence that something is wrong.
We see our first glimpse of doubt only one minute into Episode 1 of Sanditon. Mary casts a wary eye at Tom when, despite all signs to the contrary, he reassures her that he is correct about the direction they are traveling. After Old Stringer’s accident and Young Stringer‘s outburst, Mary gives a withering look at Tom as he attempts to minimize the events and assure her and Charlotte that everything is perfectly normal. Mary later tells Tom plainly, “If something is troubling you, I wish you would share it.” Although she does not seem entirely convinced by Tom’s reassurances, she does not press him any further.
Mary’s doubts continue at breakfast as Tom seems preoccupied. At first, Mary pokes fun at this mental absence but then furrows her brow when he speaks of still awaiting good news from Sidney. Again, she does not press the point. When Sidney returns to Sanditon, Mary indirectly questions him about “the source of [Tom’s] concerns” and accepts without question Sidney’s half-truth.
Mary tells Charlotte that “marriage is about making allowances,” and we can wonder whether her failure to question Tom about her growing doubts is in keeping with this philosophy.
Sometimes, Mary has no opportunity to challenge Tom. For example, during the breakfast conversation, Charlotte jumps in to reassure Tom about Sidney Parker’s good intentions. Instead of contradicting Charlotte, Mary takes the opportunity to reinforce Charlotte’s evolving opinion of Sidney. Similarly, at the cricket match, Mary can only give a long stare at Tom’s fleeing back after he assures her the delay is nothing to worry about and walks away.
Other times, Mary Parker appears to bite her tongue. Although she earlier complained to Charlotte about Tom’s distraction, when Tom mentions his neglect, Mary assures Tom that his mental absences do not affect her view of how much he dotes on her and the children. Similarly, only moments after giving the quirky Dr. Fuchs a hesitant welcome, she reassures Tom that Dr. Fuchs “will be a great success” with Lady Denham.
Finally, Mary sometimes seems to have a blind spot. After Sidney informs Tom that no additional funding is coming, Tom’s body language is visibly defeated. Mary ignores these signs and asks Tom whether Sidney returned with good news. She readily accepts Tom’s assurances and the expensive necklace he offers as “a promise of things to come,” a promise that is sealed with a kiss.
One Day of Reckoning
Mary’s ability to cope with Tom’s monomania is pushed to its limit when Tom’s lies become public at Sanditon’s cricket match. Neither gentle nudges nor more daring but still restrained challenges will suffice.
My Final(ish) Word
As she locks eyes with Tom at the cricket after his financial misdealing is revealed, Mary seems to understand that all her suspicions were true and that she’s made too many allowances. In a scene brilliantly acted by Ashfield, Mary puts it all together – Tom has been lying to himself and to her and diverting money from Sanditon’s workers to keep up the façade. Mary expresses, with dignified strength, the fury that has been building for viewers ever since Tom’s duplicity became clear to us.
Shortly after her confrontation with Tom, Mary forcefully condemns him, telling Charlotte he is untrustworthy. Mary appears finally to dare to exercise authority, denying Charlotte’s request for the carriage and explicitly forbidding her from traveling from Sanditon to London. Mary’s pronouncement is unambiguous: “You cannot rely on Tom. No, Charlotte. That’s my final word!“
Subsequent events suggest, however, that Mary’s final word is not, in fact, so final.
Making Allowances Redux
In a short but pivotal scene in Episode 6, we see Mary ruminating as Tom narrates a letter in which he begs her not to lose faith in him.
We do not see Mary and Tom’s reunion after his return from London. Instead, we see the couple discussing future events after learning of Lady Denham’s dire state. Mary pushes back on the idea of going forward with the Sanditon regatta while Lady Denham lies on her death bed. Mary challenges Tom to accept the truth of these circumstances. Tom’s revelation about their utter dependence on Lady Denham’s investment forces Mary to set aside her qualms about propriety and buy into Tom’s “she cannot die,” the show must go on approach.
Tom’s disclosure about the potential for bankruptcy seems to jolt Mary back into making allowances, this time to restore Tom’s confidence and ensure the success of his venture. Despite knowing Eliza Campion’s history of being careless with Sidney’s heart, Mary welcomes Eliza warmly and is pleased to know that Eliza (and her fashionable friends) will stay in Sanditon for the regatta. It is now Mary who reassures Tom when he worries about early signs of low attendance. When Mary says to Tom, “I know how much today means to you,” she acknowledges that she finally understands the financial concerns driving his behaviors.
Mary, the Enabler?
Unfortunately, we learn that Mary does not fully understand Tom. He continues to hide information and makes a foolish financial choice that could cost the Parkers everything.
At this point, Mary’s “making allowances” shifts into overdrive. During a conversation in Sanditon’s chapel, Mary seems to be letting Tom off too quickly – “I can’t bear to see you punishing yourself.” Just as Tom begins to temper his obsession, Mary shifts into the role of an optimist: “This is a misfortune, but somehow we’ll come through it.” She declares to Tom: “I absolutely believe in you, Tom. And I love you.”
Viewers reel when Mary joyously celebrates Sidney’s announcement that the Parkers are saved from financial ruin. Mary, after all, should be aware of the heartache this news will cause for Sidney and for Charlotte, who is standing alone watching the celebration. In the final goodbye between Mary Parker and Charlotte Heywood, Mary attempts to console Charlotte and implicitly apologize for everything that has happened, but this feels inadequate after her jubilant hug and dash from the room without even a commiserating glance at Charlotte.
For Better or Worse
Mary granting complete amnesty to Tom, encouraging his vainglorious quest, and seeming to forsake her dear friend, Charlotte, did not initially sit well with me. Mary has, however, bonded herself in marriage to Tom for better or worse. Rather than choosing to make a terrible situation worse, she acts sensibly in trying to lift her husband from his depths of despair. While I would love to see her take Tom to task in Sanditon’s chapel, I also understand that Mary may view life with a broken and bitter man as a worse outcome than life with a silly man.
As for her relationship with Charlotte, Mary has experienced a marriage where her spouse puts another – the town of Sanditon – first. While I believe Mary has sincere feelings of regret about the outcome for Charlotte Heywood, Mary’s first loyalty is to her husband. She chooses to be a good wife hoping that her friendship will survive.
Mary Parker is an admirable woman doing her best to cope with a silly spouse. Now that the extent of Tom Parker’s foolishness has been revealed, let’s hope that Mary’s willingness to dare is more frequent and visible. More of Mary the Fierce, please.
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.