Portrayed by: Anne Reid
Show: PBS’ Sanditon Season 1
The grandes dames of Jane Austen are notorious for their concern with status and their meddling. Their insistence on their superior sense – or, more accurately, their overall superiority – provides a female villain whose stubborn snobbery puts the heroine’s future happiness in peril. While Lady Russell (Persuasion) has an eleventh-hour change of perspective that redeems her in some readers’ eyes, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice) remains detestable to the end.
Lady Denham, the grande dame of Sanditon, seems to stand out among the lordly Ladies. Her manner is blunter. Her disdain appears more comprehensive, extending beyond social inferiors to encompass virtually everyone. Additionally, Lady Denham’s primary concern appears to be not with preserving a class hierarchy but with protecting her fortune.
And, of course, there’s her overt racism. Lady Denham is a deeply flawed character, seemingly more irredeemable than even Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Yet, Lady Denham does not stand in direct opposition to the happiness of Charlotte Heywood, Sanditon’s heroine. Instead, Lady Denham’s quarrels are with characters who are (almost) as despicable as she is, allowing us sometimes to forget that “she’s a mean miserly old monster.” A closer look at Lady Denham’s odious attitudes and actions reveals a character whom, despite her sometimes-comic audacity, we would do well to dislike.
The Marriage Business
At various points in Sanditon, Lady Denham reveals the motivation for her own marriage as well as her philosophy on marriage. Her personal choice and the choices she tries to impose shed light on different aspects of the character.
A Marriage of Convenience
In an interview with PBS, Anne Reid summarizes: “Lady Denham has … managed to get a title and money by using her feminine wiles to secure a profitable marriage.”
We learn early in Season 1, Episode 1 of Sanditon, that Lady D is a wealthy widow who “did well by [her] marriage” to Sir Harry Denham. During conversations with her niece, Esther Denham, Lady D reveals that in her view, love has nothing to do with marriage. Instead, Lady D views it as “a business arrangement, nothing more.” Before Lady D can finish the question, “do you think I married for love,” she is cut off by a sudden onset of illness. The answer to the question is apparent: Lady Denham married for money and not for love.
While such a choice was not uncommon at that time, Lady Denham seems to have been equally motivated to avoid so far as possible any constraints attached to marriage. During a family meeting at Sanditon House, Lady Denham implies that the shorter a marriage is, the better when she tells Esther that Lord Babington “couldn’t be a better prospect if he was advanced in years and in poor health.” Given that Sir Harry was “old and in poor health,” we might imagine that Lady D selected him in hopes of inheriting his fortune without too much delay.
This choice implies that Lady Denham is not only greedy but also shrewd and perhaps impatient. It also, arguably, places her as an interloper in the Denham line of inheritance.
Fortune Hunters Academy
Having figured out the marriage business, Lady Denham seems intent on schooling others in the ways of marrying a fortune. The primary beneficiaries of her wisdom are Sir Harry’s niece and nephew, Esther and Edward Denham. Despite their respective protestations, Esther and Edward receive constant pressure to marry for money.
In Esther’s case, Lady Denham inserts herself as a direct correspondent with Lord Babington, inviting him to Sanditon’s cricket match. She badgers Esther to charm Lord Babington despite Esther’s general indifference to the would-be suitor. Lady D dismisses Esther’s feelings entirely, declaring, “it is much better to be loved than to love.” Although in hindsight at the end of Sanditon Season 1, we can see that Lady D’s meddling leads to a good outcome for Esther. Lady Denham’s intentions throughout the season are for Esther to marry a fortune, but the fact that Lord Babington is a lovely person is a bonus.
Setting Up Edward
In Edward’s case, Lady Denham takes matters into her own hands by warning off women of modest means like Charlotte and selecting for him suitably wealthy prospects. She seems not the least bit concerned that Edward love or honor his wife. Lady Denham forces Edward to pursue heiress Georgiana Lambe at an ill-conceived Sanditon House luncheon simply because she comes with a £100,000 fortune.
After Edward’s failed “courtship,” Lady Denham scours her little black book for wealthy single women. She suggests that the dashing Edward take a wife who has a “barely noticeable” squint. It doesn’t matter if he’s attracted to her as long as she’s rich.Additionally, Lady D’s suggestion that, once married, Edward “can tomcat around to [his] heart’s content” reveals that nothing about marriage is sacred to her other than the financial terms.
With love marriages becoming more common, Lady D’s insistence that a new generation follows her lead shows a lack of feeling bordering on callousness.
What’s Mine is Mine
In addition to enforcing her philosophy of marriage, Lady Denham’s determination that Esther and Edward find suitably rich spouses is her way of protecting her own fortune. As Reid tells PBS: “Like a lot of Jane Austen characters, [Lady Denham is] terribly mean with her money. Her money was hard to come by so, now she’s got it, she’s not going to part with any of it.”
Lady Denham’s stinginess is evident in almost every episode of Sanditon. She “honors” others with her presence at tea, securing so many free refreshments at Trafalgar House that Tom Parker is “thinking of sending her a bill.” She notices needed repairs at Denham Place; rather than offering her niece and nephew a hand, she turns up her nose and walks away. She declares loudly that she “abhors charity” as she considers turning her other niece Clara Brereton out on the street. She even laments from her pew at a wedding that she hopes the bride will return the tiara Lady D has lent her.
One reason Lady Denham guards her money so jealousy is because it provides her comfort, here meaning emotional rather than material comfort. Lady D seems to think of wealth as a consolation. In defending herself against accusations of hurting Georgiana’s feelings, Lady D declares: Miss Lambe “has 100,000 to comfort her.”
Even though she criticizes her relative’s scheming, Lady Denham also seems to realize that her money allows her to demand the company of others. In exchange for providing Clara with room and board, Lady Denham wields power over Clara to act as her faithful companion. Lady Denham commands Clara to play piano to entertain visitors at Sanditon House and requires Clara’s presence at her side when welcoming luncheon guests. She’s often insulting, calling Clara a ninny, or telling her, “your company is much more agreeable when you smile and say nothing.” Lady D knows she can get away with this treatment because Clara has no alternatives.
Once Clara is sent packing, this brokered companionship seems to continue with Esther. When Esther doesn’t delight in Lady D’s chosen activity, Lady D warns Esther: “Don’t give yourself airs. You haven’t got my money, yet.” Interestingly, at this point, Esther is apparently unaware of the contents of Lady Denham’s now destroyed will. Esther does not know that, despite all their fawning, Lady Denham’s relatives would have received nothing. She keeps up the pretense that Esther may one day inherit perhaps to maintain demands on Esther’s company a while longer.
As distasteful as she claims to find it, Lady Denham appears to use her relatives’ false hope of inheriting to manipulate them.
Another way Lady Denham wields the power of her fortune is by pestering Tom Parker about the Sanditon venture. As the primary backer of Tom’s scheme to turn a fishing village into a fashionable seaside resort, Lady Denham does “stand to profit richly … if it succeeds.” It’s unclear what promises, other than the prospect of a “quick return,” prompted Lady D to invest. It’s also unclear how much of her fortune is tied up in the venture.
What is clear from her very first meeting with Tom is that she no longer trusts him or his judgment. He apparently needs her approval for certain decisions, including whether to hire a doctor. As with her philosophy of marriage, Lady Denham first lets her own beliefs and tastes govern. She despises doctors and modern medicine, believing sips of seawater and donkeys’ milk are all one needs for good health. When Tom forcefully insists that a spa town must have a doctor, Lady Denham does not keep up her opposition. She also does not express her approval. Instead, she threatens Tom that he “shall live with the consequences.”
The looming possibility of Lady D withdrawing her investment from the Sanditon venture negatively influences Tom Parker’s actions. We cannot know whether Tom would make better decisions without this fear. Although Lady D’s impatience may be justified, her constant threats do not contribute to Tom’s business judgment. And knowing the contents of her will as well as her quick agreement to one week’s grace, it’s hard to believe Lady Denham would entirely abandon Sanditon.
Once again, we can wonder whether Lady Denham uses her money to create a false urgency, keeping Tom in a constant groveling posture.
The Peculiar Hostess
One trait we don’t have to wonder about is Lady Denham’s racist attitude. Her behavior at the infamous pineapple luncheon is reprehensible. Because these events occur in Season 1, Episode 2 (and Lady D and Georgiana have no other direct encounters), some Sanditon viewers may forget the full extent of the traumatic treatment that Lady Denham inflicts on Georgiana Lambe. Others may “excuse” Lady D as a regular Regency racist. Understanding Lady Denham’s exceptional and deliberate race-based cruelty to Georgiana is essential to fully fleshing out Lady D’s character.
Rotten to the Core
Although we cannot expect Regency-era English people to have modern racial sensitivities, we can evaluate Lady Denham’s behavior through the eyes of the other luncheon guests. Heads turn sharply when Lady Denham asks bluntly, “Was not your mother a slave?” This collective movement indicates that Lady Denham’s words shock her contemporaries.
Lady Denham continues her diatribe, casting enslaved women as willing enchantresses rather than victims of rape, the ugly reality. Although the assembled company around the Sanditon House table may not be aware of this historical detail, we can read discomfort on their faces. Everyone knows Lady Denham is beyond the pale. Following the luncheon, even Tom Parker refers to her as “an appalling … woman.”
More importantly, we can measure the impact of Lady Denham’s inhospitably racist treatment by the pain it causes Georgiana. The exchange creates such distress that it drives Georgiana to seek first to flee Sanditon and, when that fails, to despair on a rocky perch above the sea.
From Honor to Humiliation
Despite Lady Denham’s assertion that she “likes to tease” or Charlotte Heywood’s claim that Lady Denham “means no real harm,” it is essential that we remember the cruelty on display at the luncheon. Lady Denham invites Georgiana into her home as the guest of honor. Although questionable, the decision to have an exotic fruit is arguably a gesture toward Georgiana’s Antiguan heritage. Yet, Lady Denham’s (flawed) hospitality extends only so long as the event seems within her control and the prize within her grasp.
Lady Denham’s cruelty erupts following Georgiana’s late arrival compounded by her mocking of the hot house pineapple, and finally, her refusal to engage in the courtship game and marriage business. Faced with Georgiana’s supposed effrontery, she is unrestrained in spewing out reflections seemingly intended to humble or humiliate the “hoity-toity” heiress. Once vexed, she lashes out at her guest of honor. As Lady Denham herself says: “This is what comes of contradicting me.”
In addition to racism, Lady Denham’s flipping from hostess to tormentor suggests intolerance and vindictiveness.
A near-death experience and a sad story in later episodes of Sanditon may create the deceptive impression that Lady Denham is not a “horrid old woman.”
We tend to celebrate as she declares triumphantly, “like a phoenix I am rising from the ashes.” We’re on her side as she banishes Edward and Clara, forgetting for a moment that she has had them jump through hoops for an inheritance she never intended them to have. We forget that only hours earlier, Esther observes that “there’s not a single person alive that holds [Lady Denham] in the least affection.” Watching Lady D vanquish death and cheating relatives with such flair could be cause for admiration if seen in isolation.
Similarly, as Lady D shows vulnerability in Season 1, Episode 8, we may allow our hearts to soften towards her. Her villain origin story is one of heartbreak and disappointment as a young, naïve girl. We understand that perhaps Lady Denham has hardened her heart and altered her view of marriage because her own devotion was rewarded by being passed over by her lover for “a girl from Gloucestershire with 50,000.” While the reasons for Lady Denham’s initial steps on the path of miserly meanness are poignant, Lady Denham has been on the journey long enough to make new choices should she so desire.
Redemption or Villainy?
While Lady Denham’s character could go either way in future seasons of Sanditon, her solid base of bad traits suggest more scornful looks and sharp-tongued remarks regardless of the ultimate outcome.
If her fortune is secure from scheming relatives and Tom Parker’s mismanagement, there may be room for the heartbroken girl to reemerge. For Lady Denham to achieve full redemption in my eyes, she would first need to make amends for her treatment of Georgiana in Episode 2 and to get on the right side of history.
Since these events are appear improbable, Lady Denham is likely to remain detestable, if not to the end, at least well past the eleventh hour.
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.