Portrayed by: Rose Williams
Show: PBS’ Sanditon Season 1
In each Jane Austen heroine, we find a distinct model of a single young woman navigating the pressures of Regency society and its emphasis on matrimony while trying to discover or maintain her own guiding principles. Each heroine has qualities that we admire, such as intelligence, wit, comparative goodness, or fortitude. These principles and positive qualities (together with fortunate turns of events) ultimately allow each Austen heroine to marry on her terms, but they also come with a darker side that causes some setbacks and suffering along the way.
In Sanditon, Charlotte Heywood is the beloved heroine with principles and merits. She is guided by a firm belief that marriage is not an obligation and should be entered only with “equality of affection.” Charlotte is smart and courageous and sensible. As with other Austen heroines, Charlotte eventually wins the heart of a man to whom she’s willing to give her own. Unlike other heroines, in Sanditon Season 1? Charlotte’s ability to marry on her own terms is thwarted by an unfortunate turn of events.
Focusing, however, on Tom Parker’s disastrous final decision as the sole cause of Charlotte’s suffering relieves her of any responsibility for her life and prior behaviors. Rather than idealizing Charlotte as a virtuous victim of circumstance, viewing her as a complex heroine whose own beliefs and behaviors sometimes create frictions and problems gives a more complete picture of her character. Understanding Charlotte’s shortcomings allow us to better appreciate her visible strengths and invisible struggles.
Charlotte Heywood, The Farmer’s Daughter
Charlotte Heywood is the eldest daughter of Mr. Heywood, a gentleman farmer in the village of Willingden. Mr. and Mrs. Heywood are the parents of twelve children, all of whom apparently still live at home. We, first, see Charlotte accompanied by five of her eleven siblings as she lies on her stomach in a field with a rifle in hand and her sites trained on a rabbit. This opening image signals that Charlotte is less dainty than the typical Regency era heroine. Charlotte hunting, presumably for food, not for sport, also suggests that she plays a different role in her family than the “women’s work” of doing embroidery and playing piano.
A Simple Country Girl
Charlotte Heywood comes from a different world than most of the gentlefolk in Sanditon. During the scenes inside the Heywood home, we have the impression of a warm, close-knit family where, unlike any of the other adult characters, both parents are still alive.
While the Heywood home is cozy and appears happy, it is not luxurious. Later scenes reinforce the idea that Charlotte’s family does not enjoy the same wealth as other characters. Her wide-eyed entry into the Parker home and her gentle caress of the embroidered silk bedspread demonstrate Charlotte’s sense of awe at the overt affluence she finds in Sanditon. When she says to Mary Parker, “I’ve never had a room of my own before,” Charlotte confirms that her life in Willingdon did not afford her even the luxury of private space. She later tells James Stringer that his humble dwelling reminds her of the Heywood home, confessing that it is “far more comfortable” to her than Trafalgar House.
Charlotte’s discomfort with opulence appears in other scenes. When walking to the pineapple luncheon at Sanditon House, she seems intimidated as she says to Mary Parker, “I swear the house has grown in size since I was last here.” At Mrs. Maudsley’s masked rout in London assembling every person worth a fig in London, Charlotte says to Sidney Parker, “I’m certain I don’t belong in this company.” At the Sanditon regatta, peopled with London’s beau monde, Charlotte begrudgingly agrees with Mrs. Campion’s assessment saying: “I’m a farmer’s daughter who reads books. What could I possibly have in common with anyone here?”
Charlotte’s recognition of her simpler upbringing underlies her ability to refrain from spending her time in Sanditon “in search of a wealthy man to marry and to keep [her],” as Lady Denham so bluntly alleges.
A Woman of Action
Another effect of Charlotte’s upbringing is her desire to be more actively involved in gentlemen’s pursuits than society ladies are expected or allowed to be.
Throughout Sanditon, we see Charlotte shrugging off traditional gendered roles that assign idleness or weakness to women. Her immediate response to Reverend Hankins’ lilies of the field sermon is to tell Arthur Parker, “I will toil, and you can blossom. Each to his own.” Charlotte shows some knowledge of inheritance laws in her first exchange with Lady Denham, earning praise as “a sharp one” and “a good sensible girl.” She has a head for bookkeeping, earning the unenviable position of Tom’s assistant to sort out his disorganized piles of “bills, invoices, plans, memoranda….”
Charlotte Heywood has an interest and knowledge of architecture that win both Tom’s and Young Stringer‘s admiration. During this conversation, we learn that she has been, at the least, seeking to be involved in the management of her father’s property, “trying to persuade him to refurbish his tenants’ cottages along modern lines.” With her head for business, Charlotte even negotiates the payment delay that allows Sidney to save Tom from debtors’ prison.
Charlotte also shows a toughness not expected from young ladies of the era. When Dr. Fuchs warns her that she “might want to turn her head away” from the gory scene of tending to Old Stringer’s injury, she assures the doctor, “I’m not afraid of a little blood.” When Charlotte calls out “I’ll play” at Sanditon’s cricket match, she draws tittering laughter from the crowd and from both teams. She, nevertheless, insists that “women play in Willingden” and actively refuses Sidney’s offer of help, reassuring him that she knows what she’s doing. We even see Charlotte directing the firefighting operations in her white gloves and brand-new ball gown.
Sometimes Too Much
Charlotte Heywood shows many heroic traits that rightly win her admiration. Yet, she is not without flaws. Rose Williams’ exceptional range of expression and emotion allows us to see both the happy, heroic Charlotte and the Charlotte who sometimes goes too far in her unyielding honesty or self-confidence. Although Sidney Parker assures Charlotte that she is “not too anything,” her own assessment that she is “inclined to talk too much” and “too headstrong, too opinionated” is sometimes closer to the truth. While these qualities make her courageous and charming, they also create some challenges.
In Charlotte’s desire to be helpful and solve problems, she sometimes puts herself or others at risk. Her plan to help Georgiana Lambe have a second tryst with Otis leads to Georgiana’s abduction from Sanditon, putting Georgiana at risk of complete ruination. While her quick thinking does help save the day, we should not overlook her carelessness in contributing to the situation.
Similarly, Charlotte puts her own life at risk by sneaking off to London and wandering into a dark alley. She barely pauses to thank Sidney for saving her life, pausing only after he asks her, “What do you think would have happened?“
While Charlotte often speaks up against injustice, her tendency to overshare can create problems. Her first tongue-lashing from Sidney Parker comes on the heels of Charlotte sketching somewhat negative portraits of his brothers. Charlotte does not pause to note the dark cloud rising over Sidney’s face with each word she speaks.
Similarly, Charlotte inserts herself into what is apparently a long-standing dispute between Old and Young Stringer about ambition. She seems to realize she may have over-stepped only after Old Stringer says: “It’s a fool says otherwise.” One of Charlotte’s biggest verbal blunders comes when she tells Georgiana Lambe that she’s given her word to look out for Georgiana’s safety. Charlotte is, then, forced to reveal that she’s Sidney Parker’s spy.
While most of Charlotte’s blurts create uncomfortable situations only for herself, I always find it disturbing that Charlotte divulges to a complete stranger Georgiana’s entire kidnapping story, using the full names of all involved.
Knowledgeable but Naive
Despite Charlotte Heywood’s more modest upbringing and her action orientation, she has somehow gained access to books and made time to read extensively. Through her conversations with Sidney, we learn that Charlotte is well-read, with her knowledge encompassing the works of Greek philosophers. Yet, despite her book smarts, on many occasions, Charlotte appears ignorant or blind to important facts and social dynamics. As Williams explained to PBS, Charlotte “has never been out of Willingden before, and so her ideas of everywhere else come from books.”
The Cold, Cruel World
After rescuing Georgiana, Charlotte confesses to Tom that, until then, she’s “been blinded by sentiment and naivety.” While this assessment is probably too harsh, we do see many instances where Charlotte is very quick to trust or to judge based on her own feelings or a partial understanding.
In her encounters with Clara Brereton and Edward Denham during the first ball, she takes Clara at her word, choosing to trust her sea-bathing companion and to shun the slickly charming flirt. She flip-flops about Sidney after hearing accusations of his racism and involvement in the sugar trade. Her own shock and embarrassment at learning that slavery still exists may contribute both to her willingness to believe Georgiana and Otis and to her outburst of rage at Sidney.
Charlotte’s pushing Sidney to do more to help his family comes from her belief that Tom is a worthy steward of the Sanditon project and Sidney is a disagreeable outlier. She is not aware of Tom’s serious financial mismanagement or of Sidney’s behind-the-scenes efforts to secure additional funding and tenants. Similarly, her helping Georgianacontinuese to see Otis is based on her belief that he is a good man and lovers should be together without understanding Sidney’s true motivation to protect Georgiana from fortune hunters.
After the kidnapping, Charlotte does seem somewhat humbled by the realization that her judgment has not been infallible.
Boys and Girls
Sidney Parker asks Charlotte pointedly, “and what do you know of love apart from what you’ve read?” For most of Sanditon Season 1, Charlotte is naïve to the love around her and growing within her.
One of Charlotte Heywood’s biggest blind spots is her apparent obliviousness to James Stringer’s increasing fondness for her. In most of their encounters, she encourages and compliments him, and he responds with wonder and declarations such as “I wouldn’t wish for you to change, not for the world.” Although Charlotte appears to be openly flirting with Young Stringer at the cricket, we learn during their walk at Sanditon’s regatta that she has no idea of the romantic feelings she has stirred up in him. Perhaps, because “the normal rules of conduct tend to be relaxed and sometimes altogether flouted” in seaside resorts, Charlotte is unaware that her unchaperoned walks with Stringer are typically courtship rituals. Recognizing Stringer’s attentions as budding love would require Charlotte to understand that, when setting aside social codes, both people must be aware that they are playing by new rules.
Charlotte is also unaware of her own budding love for Sidney Parker. When Lady Susan tells her that the feelings she’s described sound like love, Charlotte declares, “that could not be further from the truth.” Charlotte believes she would never fall in love with a man like Sidney and seems genuinely stricken when Lady Susan tells her, “You cannot determine who you fall in love with.” Charlotte’s hesitation as Sidney opens up to her in the rowboat and even after he declares, “I am my best self, my truest self, when I’m with you” may have as much to do with doubts about her own feelings as doubts about his.
The Power of Love
As she begins to discover that she has misjudged Sidney and that he has evolved because of her, Charlotte embraces her love for him. It is only in accepting that her judgment has not been perfect that Charlotte is able to see clearly. She also rejects the idea, proclaimed by some, that men like Sidney cannot change. In hearing him parrot back to her various observations about himself, Charlotte realizes that Sidney has been listening. In watching him act, she realizes that he has taken her words to heart. She finally judges him on his tangible actions and not her past feelings about him.
Charlotte’s devastation after Sidney announces what he’s been obliged to do to save the family attests to the depth of her love. Williams’ violent sobs in the opulent bedroom that initially provided such joy and wonder are heartbreaking each time.
Yet, Charlotte loves Sidney – the much-improved version – in such a way that she must encourage him to continue to be this better version of himself, even if it means losing him. In chastising Sidney for saying he doesn’t love his future wife, Charlotte is reminding him that his present actions define him and underlie her love for him.
In this devastating goodbye, Charlotte Heywood seems to have learned some bitter lessons from her past mistakes. Not everything can be said. Social pressures sometimes matter. Love is uncontrollable.
While these may be valuable life lessons, they may dim Charlotte’s sparkle. Hopefully, Charlotte Heywood will embrace the final lesson and unlearn the first two quickly.