Portrayed by: Crystal Clarke
Show: Sanditon Season 1
While they are not primary characters, orphaned heiresses and vulnerable female wards do feature in Jane Austen‘s novels. In Georgiana Darcy, who narrowly escaped ruination, Eliza Williams (mother), who was forced into a loveless marriage and stripped of her fortune, and Eliza Williams (daughter), who was ruined and abandoned by Willoughby, we get glimpses of the dangers threatening young gentlewomen bereft of parental care.
Sanditon‘s Georgiana Lambe, like these other parentless women, faces risks from imperfect guardianship. Yet, Georgiana Lambe is utterly unlike any other Austen ward or heiress. Although her fortune makes her one of the wealthiest characters in the Austen universe, as the only Black character (penned by Austen in the original fragment), Georgiana is exposed to social marginalization even before fortune hunters launch assaults on her maidenly honor.
To understand the complexity of Georgiana’s character, we must explore the pressures of respectability and the dynamics of exclusion that shape Georgiana’s life and choices in ways not shared by seemingly “comparable” characters. Only by embracing Georgiana’s Blackness as a central aspect of her experience can viewers appreciate her pain and resilience.
Always the Outsider
Georgiana Lambe arrives in Sanditon with her governess, who, according to Lady Denham, has left one of the many empty houses. We learn more details about Georgiana from Diana Parker, who observed her arrival. Diana informs her brother Tom Parker that Georgiana “is said to be a great heiress with a fortune from the sugar trade.” Based on only a “quick glimpse of her back,” Diana assesses the whole party as “very fine and respectable.” Diana seems most impressed that Georgiana travels “with her own maid [which] speaks of riches.” Upon this report, Tom hopes that Georgiana will set a fashion for other “rich young heiresses to flock into Sanditon.“
Miserable, Chilly Island
What Tom does not know is that Georgiana Lambe is in Sanditon, and indeed England, against her will. Georgiana’s guardian, Sidney Parker, has brought her from Antigua to England to “complete her education” and because “duty dictated” it. Georgiana wishes that Sidney had left her where he found her.
As Mrs. Griffiths gossips with Lady Denham, we learn that Georgiana’s father was a plantation owner and an enslaver in Antigua who amassed a fortune but then granted freedom to his enslaved workers prior to his death. Mrs. Griffiths also informs Lady D that Georgiana has been in London for some time and the reason for removing her from London to Sanditon is “an unsuitable romance.”
In conversation with Sidney, Georgiana expresses her disdain for England, saying, “If you only knew how much I hate this miserable, chilly island.” We quickly understand that, although her father “wanted [her] to take [her] place in polite society,” Georgiana feels neither at home nor particularly welcome in England. She is acutely aware that, despite her wealth, people gawk at her as “the heiress from the West Indies, rich and Black.”
In explaining her emotional connection to Otis Molyneux, Georgiana explains to Charlotte Heywood her feelings after being relocated to England: “I was uprooted, lost, in despair.” Crystal Clarke‘s ability to show emotional vulnerability in this scene and others is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Georgiana later dreamily wishes that the rowboat they are riding in “could follow the current to the sea and just keep on.” She longs to escape England.
Sanditon’s “Polite” Society
Georgiana also desperately wants to escape Sanditon, a need made more acute by her brushes with “polite” society. Her entry into the first ball is met with cries of “scandalous” and “look, a negress!” Her arrival and departure from church are scrutinized, as even Charlotte Heywood gazes at her with curiosity. Even while in church, Reverend Hankins sets her apart from the “English roses,” referring to her as one of the “exotic blooms.”
It is while attending Lady Denham’s luncheon as the guest of “honor” that Georgiana faces the ugly reality of England’s polite society. Even before attending, she understands that, like the pineapple, she will be an exotic centerpiece, the object of curiosity. Georgiana arrives prepared to do battle with ignorance. Instead, Sidney forces her to behave in a “respectable” manner, accepting offense with grace. Because of rank and propriety, no one dares challenge Lady Denham’s racist observations leaving young Georgiana to defend herself with the only arms left to her, poise and wit. Even these weapons, when wielded by a young woman defending her own identity, earn Georgiana the label of “insolent.”
The despair that leads to Georgiana’s thwarted attempts to escape Sanditon by coach and then by more drastic means is rooted in the realization that, for her, freedom is illusory. The need for Georgiana to secure “permission” from the coach driver and the other passengers before boarding emphasizes that her freedoms (in this case of movement) can be curtailed based on the comfort of white people. Georgiana is constrained to a place, a society, and an identity where even her English parentage and her vast fortune do not ensure equality.
Visible But Not Seen
As the “West Indian heiress,” Georgiana Lambe faces two challenges to being seen for who she really is – her money and her skin color. As the richest person in any room and the only Black person in many rooms, she will draw attention. While her wealth may inspire awe or admiration, it may also attract fortune hunters and others who seek to profit from her wealth. Her Blackness, on the other hand, will most often create negative assumptions and associations. These two factors present obstacles for Georgiana to trust others and to enjoy authentic relationships.
Arthur Parker and Charlotte Heywood are the two people with whom Georgiana Lambe develops the closest friendships in Sanditon. Yet, even in her initial and ongoing encounters with each of them, Georgiana is not quite understood.
Georgiana’s initial encounter with Arthur is one of force when he yanks her hand to join him on the dance floor, having just overheard the amount of her wealth. Arthur does laugh at Georgiana’s taunting of Lady Denham but then offers to reward her with a slice of pineapple, an object of offense, not honor for Georgiana. Later, Georgiana expresses her discomfort with the gaze of onlookers at Sanditon’s regatta, to which Arthur replies, “I thought you’d be used to it by now.” His innocent attempt to boost her morale minimizes her feelings of hyper-visibility.
Georgiana endures Charlotte’s curious gaze outside the church before listening to Charlotte describe a loveless marriage as a form of slavery. She politely accepts Charlotte’s comparison of their situations as outsiders in Sanditon, even though Georgiana is the only one who has just been heckled and swatted at by a hostile crowd in the street. She educates Charlotte about the links between British wealth and colonial systems, disabusing Charlotte of the idea that slavery no longer exists. Georgiana also listens to Charlotte gush about her newfound admiration of Sidney Parker, dismissing Georgiana’s assertions that he is not be trusted. We do not learn the basis for Georgiana’s protestation, but Charlotte’s unwillingness to inquire again minimizes Georgiana’s concerns.
Although Arthur and Charlotte are not perfect allies, Georgiana does need their friendships to survive the hostility she so often endures in Sanditon.
Mrs. Griffiths, Georgiana’s caretaker, chastises her for disappearing by yelling, “I thought you’d set sail for home” – a reminder that Georgiana is not entirely English. She later criticizes picnics as the “province of … savages,” language that recalls the supposedly civilizing effects of British colonialism. In a horrible parallel to the capture, enslavement, and transport of Africans, Georgiana is kidnapped and sold by white men to settle a debt. Her despicable almost-husband, Mr. Howard, indicates that he is not daunted by the fact that Georgiana is “spirited,” comparing her to horses in need of breaking.
And, of course, there’s Lady Denham’s luncheon. One element of the scene is particularly vile to those familiar with British slave codes and the treatment of enslaved women. Lady Denham refers to Georgiana’s mother as an enchantress who seduced her master as a way to escape slavery. Slave codes did not recognize the rape of enslaved women by their enslavers as a crime, and myths about the hyper-sexuality of Black women were often used as a justification. In peddling this vision of Georgiana’s mother, Lady Denham – knowingly or not – is perpetuating racist ideology specifically designed to reinforce chattel slavery.
Remembering that Georgiana witnessed slavery in Antigua, we can better understand how disturbing such casual references to the inhumane system are for her.
Belonging and Betrayal
Because of her isolation and the constant aggressions in England, Otis Molyneux appears to provide Georgiana with a safe harbor. As a Black formerly enslaved person, he seems capable of seeing and loving Georgiana for who she truly is.
Head over Heels
Like many Austenian couples, the romance begins with a clumsy misunderstanding; Otis mistakes Georgiana for a servant. While such mistaken identity might seem comical, given Georgiana’s usual dress and carriage, Otis’ gaffe seems to be based on Georgiana’s skin color. Even Otis may not have been able to imagine her as an heiress who belonged in the social space where they met.
Overlooking this initial slight, Georgiana falls hard for Otis, saying that “he restored [her] to life.” We understand that the three months Georgiana spent with Otis in London before being removed to Sanditon were the happiest of her life. Without questioning the sincerity of Georgiana’s feelings, we can wonder what effect her uprooting and sense of social isolation play in their intensity. Georgiana finds belonging when she most needs it.
The Price of Love
Despite her intense desire to be with Otis, Georgiana does heed Sidney’s instruction not to marry Otis. During their secret tryst in Sanditon, when Otis presses the marriage point, Georgiana again refuses his proposal. We don’t know Georgiana’s exact reasons for obeying Sidney on this one point, but we do know that she plans to continue her love affair with Otis. Perhaps she thinks Sidney will relent; perhaps she thinks Otis will wait until her majority.
With one of the challenges to authentic connection removed from her relationship with Otis, Georgiana may naively assume that the other is also not an issue. In other words, being seen beyond skin color could cause her to lower her guard about potential fortune hunters. Unfortunately, Georgiana does not understand the pressures Otis faces or that her fortune has captured unsavory attention. Georgiana pays a steep price for loving unguardedly.
When Otis seeks forgiveness, he tells Georgiana, “I fell in love with your soul.” While these words – “I see you” – are exactly the ones Georgiana longs to hear, she can no longer trust that financial calculations were not also involved in Otis’ pursuit of her hand. Georgiana’s devastation following this betrayal is more than a broken heart. It is a return to social isolation and misunderstanding of her complex identity.
Redefining Her Identity
Georgiana Lambe is more than a petulant, heart-broken heiress. She is also more than a tragic victim of struggle and exclusion. Georgiana is a graceful young woman seeking to reconcile multiple identities and the sometimes conflicting expectations that come with each of them. Her story is one of coming-of-age against the backdrop of obscene wealth, family upheaval, and social injustice.
Georgiana’s identity has been shaped by global historical dynamics that we might extrapolate, but there is much about her personal history that remains untold in Sanditon Season 1. We can see the effects of racism, displacement, orphanhood, and fortune on her current life. Clarifying important details prior to her arrival in England and in Sanditon is, however, essential to a full understanding of her character without caricature.
With better understanding for both audiences and for Georgiana (who remains ignorant of what Sidney Parker meant concerning her “best interests”), we may yet see Georgiana authorize herself to be authentically “Georgiana Lambe, the West Indian heiress.” By embracing the power and ignoring the projections associated with this title, hopefully, Georgiana will show her strength and vulnerability allowing new people to fall in love with her soul.
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.