Portrayed by: Jack Fox
Show: PBS’ Sanditon Season 1
Rake. Rogue. Scoundrel. Whatever we choose to call them, dissolute male characters are a staple of Jane Austen novels. These dastardly men are sometimes driven by lust or a desire for conquest (Willoughby). Other times, they are motivated primarily by greed or a need for revenge (Wickham), and still, other times, their motives are not entirely clear ((Henry Crawford, William Eliot, Frank Churchill). Regardless of their motives, we lump these characters together because their romantic attentions towards the women they appear to court are not constant or not wholly sincere.
Sanditon’s Sir Edward Denham certainly seems to be a lusty, greedy scoundrel. Edward manipulates, lies, and cheats, showing few if any signs of sincerity, other than scoffs or scowls. His duplicitous dealings with his sister, Esther, their rival Clara Brereton, and their aunt suggest a man devoid of any principles.
Looking closer, however, we discover a man who is constant to one unique principle: I am entitled to the good life. In Sanditon, what drives Sir Edward Denham is a firm belief that a life of leisure and luxury is his birthright. Neither a sense of entitlement nor a vulturous model for attaining wealth – essentially waiting for a relative to die – was unorthodox during the Regency era.
Understanding Edward’s plight and his ambitions as features of a rigid society helps us to isolate those of his behaviors that are truly the result of individual treachery.
A Fractured Inheritance
We learn about Edward Denham and his ambitions before he even arrives on screen in Sanditon. In a rant, Lady Denham explains that Edward Denham is the nephew of the late Sir Harry Denham, Lady Denham’s elderly husband who died leaving her a wealthy and childless widow. Lady Denham asserts that Edward is “hoping to well by [her] demise.”
Rich Uncle, Poor Dad
We gradually learn bits of Edward’s family history over the first few episodes of Sanditon. From the English inheritance laws of the time, we can infer that Edward is the son of Sir Harry Denham’s younger brother and that Edward’s father received little or none of the Denham fortune. We learn nothing about the family of Edward’s mother. We can, however, presume Edward’s mother to be dead when we discover that Edward’s father married a second time.
Esther reminds all in Sanditon who will listen that she and Edward are step-sister and step-brother and vehemently proclaims they “share no blood.” Esther informs Lord Babington that Edward’s father married her mother when both she and Edward were “young.” We can only guess at exactly how young Edward was when he lost his mother and was obliged to welcome a new step-mother and step-sister into his home.
We also do not know how or when Edward’s father and step-mother died. We can, however, suppose that Edward’s father did not “marry a fortune,” as Lady Denham insists Edward must do.
What we know for certain is that after two marriages, Edward’s father left him with little money and a step-sister in tow.
We also know that the woman Edward calls “aunt” is not inclined to use any of the money to provide him a more comfortable life while she is alive. We see Lady Denham look scornfully at the leaking roof at Denham Place and see Edward fretting over accumulating bills.
Last Denham Man Standing
Despite his sad financial state, Sanditon’s Sir Edward Denham is “an English baronet of impeccable family.” Because his uncle Sir Harry did not have children, as the sole male heir, Edward inherited this family title. He received it as a birthright, and he views the Denham fortune in the same way – the money should rightly be his.
According to Jack Fox: Edward “looks up to Lady Denham. She married for money and now doesn’t need to do anything. Edward thinks, ‘I want to be like that too.’” It is not necessarily the idea of marrying for money that appeals to Edward but the idea of a life-changing windfall. The only thing standing between “dirt poor” Edward and the Denham family fortune is Lady Denham’s power to dispose of it as she wants by writing a will.
To reunite the Denham fortune with the Denham title, Sir Edward is, according to Fox, “driven as sin.” He must either earn a place in Lady Denham’s will or see to it that she dies without one. Although Sanditon viewers often see Edward lazing about in a red robe, he is in fact working to secure the good life to which he believes he is entitled.
Charming the Ladies
One of the tools of the trade for Edward Denham is his charm. His primary objective is to win the favor of his aunt so that she will bequeath him as much of the Denham fortune as possible. In the exchanges between Lady Denham and Edward throughout Sanditon Season 1, Fox skillfully portrays fawning admiration without straying too far into groveling. His facial expressions somehow convey both sincerity and sneakiness simultaneously.
Lady Denham is, however, “a mean, miserly old woman” who appears impervious to Edward’s flattery. Because his position with Lady Denham remains uncertain, Edward must also deploy his charms on the young women who are his ally (Esther), his instrument (Georgiana), and his enemy (Clara) in his quest for Lady Denham’s approval. Edward has varying degrees of success with these targets.
At times, Edward is an eloquent, almost syrupy sweet talker.
In extolling the experience of sea-bathing to Charlotte Heywood upon her arrival in Sanditon, Edward is animated and evocative in conjuring a vivid, and sensual, picture of the “bracing shock of the first plunge” into the ocean. It’s unclear whether he’s simply enjoying a spot of light flirtation or hoping for something more. Either way, Charlotte appears unconvinced by his attempt at charm. Charlotte’s indifference is perhaps a blessing for Edward as she would be distraction from the task at hand.
Edward takes a similar approach with Esther during their beach walk after being summoned to Sanditon House in Season 1, Episode 4. As Esther wavers in her resolve to continue the “undignified contest” for Lady Denham’s inheritance, Edward waxes poetic about the enviable life that they can live. He passionately promises Esther that she shall have “whatever it is [her] heart desires.” Here, we see Edward using his charm to advance his cause by securing his closest ally. In the words of Fox, Edward is convincing Esther “to follow him over the top.”
Despite his evident ability to string together pretty words, Edward sometimes finds himself inarticulate or even speechless. Fox indicates that Edward “appears confident, but that’s masking insecurity.” Perhaps, more of Edward’s backstory might explain the source of this insecurity.
Consistent with a lack of confidence, we see Edward fumbling his attempts at conversation with Georgiana Lambe during the luncheon at Sanditon House. To understand Edward’s awkwardness here, it’s important to see that he is being forced to court an heiress he has not previously met and to do so under the watchful eye of his meddling aunt, Georgiana’s taciturn guardian (Sidney Parker), and a dozen other guests.
Additionally, Georgiana’s disdain for the event, in general, and for Edward, in particular, is hardly concealed. Edward, nevertheless, performs this humiliating task in hopes of staying in Lady Denham’s good graces. His aim is not the Lambe fortune but instead the Denham fortune.
Edward’s stumbling is at its worst in his interactions with Clara Brereton. Despite his reputation and self-image as a lady’s man, in Clara, Edward has met his match or even his superior. Rather than using his charm to manipulate Clara, Edward appears susceptible to her allure. We see Clara, not Edward, leading the conversation into titillating territory during Dr. Fuchs’ demonstration. Though he responds defensively, Edward is left sitting silently as Clara struts away.
Similarly, at the annual Sanditon cricket match, Clara taunts Edward about who will triumph in their battle for his aunt’s money. Perhaps because he has just watched Esther slipping out of his power, Edward is able to muster only a playful swipe at Clara’s bonnet ribbon. She again leaves him looking dumbfounded.
Edward’s charm may be useful, but it is not always effective in his pursuit of the good life.
Clouds on the Horizon
Fox has suggested that Edward’s motto is “Don’t let emotion cloud your judgment.” Adhering to this motto would provide Edward another arm in his quest for the Denham fortune: a dispassionate ability to do what’s necessary to achieve his goal.
We see Edward’s Machiavellian tendencies when he coldly manipulates Esther, his sole ally, into refusing an opportunity that would vastly improve her fortunes and, likely, her happiness. In one of Sanditon’s more frustrating scenes, Esther gives in and Edward’s smirk when he succeeds is chillingly devious. Edward Denham also callously uses his aunt’s last moments of lucidity to inquire about whether she has written a will, keeping his eyes on the prize. And viewers are appalled by his scheming with Clara to ensure Lady Denham dies intestate so that the Denham fortune would automatically become his.
The Glimmer of Desire
Despite his motto and his cold-heartedness, Edward is not in control of his emotions as much as he might believe. Whether it is physical attraction or intellectual fascination, Edward’s feelings for Clara reduce his ability to make good choices in her presence. As Clara puts it, he is “so easily lead.”
From the first indiscretion in the deer park to his gallant rescue of Clara after her incident in the shower-bath, Edward shows weakness. When Edward believes he has finally succeeded in securing most of the Denham fortune for himself, Clara flatters his vanity to trigger what turns out to be Edward’s biggest lapse in judgment in Sanditon Season 1.
The Shadow of Love
While Edward (rightly) views emotion as a distraction for himself, he toys with Esther’s emotions apparently to cloud her judgment. Edward knows how to manipulate Esther into remaining loyal to him. He lures her back when her affections seem to be straying, conveniently forgetting his own advice that they each need to be practical.
Edward admits that he views the quest for the fortune as a game, suggesting that even his relationship with Esther is a means to an end. We see Edward take no heed of Esther’s sense of betrayal when he comes to congratulate her for the well-played move that leaves her as the last remaining contender for the fortune.
Perhaps because he views feelings as inconvenient, Edward fails to understand the depth of Esther’s love for him. Her desperate reaction to his disloyalty ultimately leads to Edward’s downfall.
Only a Title to Comfort Him
At the end of Sanditon Season, 1 Episode 7, Edward haughtily reminds Clara that he is still a gentleman with a title. She reminds him that despite these labels, his social status has sunk, and he has no money: “You’ve lost everything. Look at you, alone and unloved.”
It would be wishful thinking to believe that this warning jolts Edward into seeking, unsuccessfully, to reconcile with Esther. Edward’s performance at Sanditon’s midsummer ball has all the hallmarks of a desperate but unrepentant man. He tries the familiar ploy of tugging on Esther’s heart strings. When Esther, at last, refuses to be manipulated, Edward turns on her, seemingly trying to ruin her reputation and her chance at happiness. He may be thinking “if I can’t have the good life, neither can you.”
With only his title to comfort him, it is likely that Edward will continue to be, in Fox’s words, “a man on the make.” Fans hoping for Edward’s redemption in future seasons of Sanditon will likely be disappointed.
Those who enjoy watching Sir Edward Denham “step on other people to get” to the good life he so earnestly wants are likely to be richly served.