Portrayed by: Charlotte Spencer
Show: PBS’ Sanditon Season 1
Sisters with a keen interest in their brothers’ romantic affairs are standard fare in the Jane Austen universe. Schemers like Caroline Bingley and Fanny Dashwood seek to keep their good brothers away from women they deem unworthy, while connivers such as Mary Crawford and Isabella Thorpe try to push good women into their unworthy brothers’ arms.
Sanditon‘s Esther Denham seems to straddle these two categories, alternately protesting or encouraging her brother’s potential conquests.
While the complexity of this “sibling” relationship is certainly a factor, to fully understand Esther’s apparent inconsistency, we must understand that her interference is not based on judgments about the goodness or worthiness of other women or even of her brother, Edward Denham. Instead, Esther’s actions are driven by her views of her own worthiness.
Esther has a deep desire to love and be loved as she is, without pretense. Her mistaken belief that such love is possible with only one man keeps her stuck in an unhealthy situation. As Esther slowly accepts that she is a good(ish) woman with an unworthy brother, she begins to see new possibilities for love.
An Assumed Identity
As with her brother, Esther’s reputation precedes her appearance on our screens. Lady Denham lumps the brother and sister together as relations who think they have a claim on her fortune. Lady D refers to Esther as the niece of her late husband, Sir Harry Denham.
Welcome to the Family
We soon learn, however, that Esther was not born a Denham. Unlike her aunt, who greedily pursued the Denham name and fortune, or her brother, who inherited the name at birth, Esther is a Denham because of sadder circumstances. Esther reveals that her mother, presumably a widow, married Edward’s father when both children were “young.” In Season 1 of Sanditon, we learn nothing about Esther’s mother or her birth father, or their respective families. In fact, we have no details of Esther’s life, not even her original family name, before she became a Denham.
Esther initially seems to fit right in with the Denhams. During her beach walk with Charlotte, Esther appears to be as blunt and tactless as Lady Denham is during the earlier cliff walk with Charlotte. Esther challenges Charlotte’s polite assessment of her hosts and her first days in Sanditon. She makes cutting remarks about each Parker brother, sparing a kind thought only for Mary Parker. She disparages her aunt as “a mean miserly old monster” and – perhaps jokingly, perhaps not – threatens to poison Clara Brereton, her rival for the Denham fortune.
Esther also appears to be as mercenary as Edward, if not more so. When Edward amuses himself by “making a newcomer feel at home,” it is Esther who refocuses him “on the task at hand.” When Edward seems unable to execute the siblings’ game plan to eliminate Clara from the “undignified contest” for Lady D’s favor, Esther benches him, saying, “I will deal with her.” When verbal threats don’t work, Esther even engages in physical intimidation by trying to torture Clara into revealing her true face. Her fierce pursuit of fortune seems to make her worthy to bear the name Denham.
Denham in Name Only
Despite these apparent similarities, Esther Denham is fundamentally unlike the other Denhams in Sanditon.
Whereas Lady Denham and Edward often use insincere charm as a means to their ends, Esther avoids such ingratiating displays. As Charlotte Spencer explained in an interview with PBS, Esther “doesn’t get on with other people because she’s so blunt.” Esther does not try to oil the wheels of social interaction or achieve her goals by pretending to be interested or amused.
When Esther says, “I suppose it is a grave weakness, but I cannot make myself excited about card games,” she reveals her approach to anything she finds tedious. Her sardonic response to Crowe at Sanditon’s first ball, her iconic eye-roll during Hankins’ sermon, and her laconic “delighted” at the cricket match all demonstrate an unwillingness to politely tolerate situations she finds disagreeable. In this sense, Esther seems uninterested in trying to convince others that she is worthy of their affections.
Yet, behind Esther’s curt façade is a woman capable of deep feeling. Unlike Lady Denham and Edward, who show few (if any) signs of genuine attachment, Esther sincerely cares about her aunt’s welfare and truly loves Edward. Her concern for Lady Denham first peeks through as Lady D collapses after lecturing Esther about the irrelevance of love. We, then, see Esther look pained as Edward pesters a bed-ridden Lady D about calling a solicitor.
The fullness of Esther’s regret and concern finally shows in one of Sanditon’s most heart-wrenching scenes. Thanks to Charlotte Spencer’s remarkable talent for conveying vulnerability and devastation, we see Esther’s raw emotion as she yearns for her aunt to “find happiness in heaven.”
Esther’s love for Edward is her deepest attachment and yet the shakiest foundation of her feelings of worthiness. We do not learn how the uniquely intimate relationship between the pair started or how long it has been going on. What we do come to see is that it is decidedly one-sided.
In an interview with PBS, Spencer stated that Esther “considers her brother Edward, her best friend.” We quickly learn, however, that the relationship is not limited to fraternal love and friendship.
After seeing Edward brush Esther’s hair because of apparent necessity (Esther no longer has a nanny), we witness a strangely intimate gesture at the card table during Sanditon’s first ball. When Lord Babington expresses shock that her brother tends to her hair, Esther quickly interjects the word “step,” as if that justifies his grooming her (double entendre intended). Later, when Edward questions her about her lack of interest in Babington, Esther responds, “Only one man in the world holds any interest of that kind for me, unfortunately.“
We finally learn the scandalous nature of their relationship when Clara observes a private moment of passion. During Esther and Edward’s beach walk to Sanditon House, we witness Edward spewing out the types of promises that might have led Esther to set aside boundaries and surrender her heart to her step-brother.
That Esther believes Edward’s promise to provide her “a life that even the poets would envy” speaks more to her (desperate) hope that her feelings are returned than to Edward’s eloquence. When Clara confronts Esther about the relationship, Esther appears confident that she and Edward would be married (completing her unfinished sentence) if only they did not share the Denham name. Fatigued by the battle for the Denham fortune, she pleads with Edward to abandon it and escape with her. She begs him to agree that: “We’ll have each other. Is that not enough?” Esther professes her love for Edward – “There is no one alive I love as much as you” – openly asking him to tell her that he feels the same way.
Edward’s response to Esther’s plea is, “Of course. But….” These three little words seem to be the key to Esther’s inability to break free from Edward. We might imagine her saying, “Edward loves me, but he must seduce Clara to provide for our future,” or “Edward wants to spend his life with me, but he needs to court Georgiana to keep Lady Denham happy.” Esther even seems to have some justification for Edward’s need to “charm the ladies” or to “sow his wild oats.”
The fracture between the siblings arises, first, when Esther, devastated by Edward’s decree that they be practical and find spouses, reluctantly obeys her aunt’s order to write to Lord Babington. Edward mocks Babington and scoffs at Esther’s supposed change of opinion about the prospect of marrying him. Esther does not, however, allow Edward to retract his decree. Although her initial move toward the water is to escape Clara’s innuendo, Esther eventually allows Lord Babington an afternoon tête-à-tête. This openness to new opportunities is possible only because Edward has rejected her.
Despite a surprising outing with Lord Babington, Esther sinks back into her “half-life” with Edward as soon as he promises: “I can do so much more than make you laugh.” Esther asks for no apology or explanation, seemingly accepting that this new promise, sealed with a kiss, reflects Edward’s renewed commitment to her.
Lifting the Veil
Despite bowing to Edward’s pressure once again, as Esther rejects Lord Babington, her doubts about her choice are evident. Unfortunately, the pain of staying does not yet outweigh the fear of changing.
It takes a burnt will and a candlelit romp in Sanditon House for Esther to see Edward clearly. As she prays for Lady D’s soul, Esther also confesses her eternal shame. She realizes that the Denham fortune is a “foul, corrupting cancer” that has caused Edward to betray her and led her to accept behavior that would otherwise be unacceptable.
Esther finally finds the courage to face the truth of Edward’s insincerity, especially when he yet again places the fortune ahead of her feelings. She recognizes that his congratulatory enthusiasm about her being the sole remaining heir entirely omits an apology for his betrayal.
Yet, Esther’s view of herself remains clouded by Edward’s “pernicious influence” applied over the years. Thankfully, in Lord Babington, Esther has found a persistent friend who also appears to understand her peculiar wit.
Throughout Sanditon, Esther has fun with social convention. She often uses the right words with the wrong tone or facial expression. As Spencer noted to PBS, “Esther is misunderstood.” Perhaps, her unwillingness to play nice in pursuit of others’ affections is a defense, but it could also be viewed as a challenge to others to see behind the mask.
Esther appears surprised when Babington says, “I shall not be put off” and again when he asks to write to her. She seems both flattered and frightened when he insists that the fascination of what’s hard draws him forward.
When Lord Babington declares her to be the wittiest woman he’s ever met, we know that he gets her. Seeing Esther secretly snicker after each of her statements by the waterfall suggests that she’s ready to experience lightness, finally lifting the veil after years of being perceived as serious and cold.
Her first response, when asked if she intends to accept Babington’s proposal, is “he makes me laugh.” We again see this desire to experience joy during the carriage ride on the beach and the soaring music of Esther Takes the Reigns.
Becoming Lady Babington
Despite all this progress, Esther still feels unworthy of love. She declares to Lady Denham that Lord Babington is “a fool if he cannot see I am not worth having.”
Esther listens intently to Lady Denham’s story about the benefits of being loved more than one loves in a marriage. She seems poised to accept the proposal that Babington intends for the final ball, taking extra effort with her appearance despite her general distaste for flirtation. She finally seems ready to move forward to new possibilities.
But, of course, the past intrudes. When Edward publicly reveals the ugly truth of their relationship, Esther fully expects Babington to cast her aside to avoid being “tainted by her disgrace.” She is shocked when he professes not to care. Esther again retreats to cold statements, telling Babington she does not love him and she does not want to be his property. She is still unable to accept that a man, this man, might love her without ulterior motive.
It is only when Babington says, “I want to make you happy” and assures her that he has no desire to “lead or constrain” her that Esther finally softens. She finally accepts Babington’s request to “walk through life by [her] side.”
Esther is a radiant bride and appears to be well on her way to being a happy wife. Hopefully, with Babington by her side, she is on her way to healing from the past struggles for fortune and love that sapped her sense of self-worth.
The Babington marriage is the one “happy ending” at the close of Sanditon Season 1, but the question remains whether it will be a “happily ever after” for Lady Babington.
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.