Portrayed by: Theo James
Show: PBS’ Sanditon Season 1
Jane Austen’s heroes test our capacity for forgiveness. Each man who eventually wins the hand of an Austen heroine commits some offense that hardened hearts might view as inexcusable. Failings such as constant condescension, implicit snubs, explicit insults, secret fiancées, overt entanglements with other women, or simply being an aloof and unwelcome, persistent presence make us wonder whether love truly can cover a multitude of sins.
When Sidney Parker first appears in Sanditon, we, therefore, have reason to suspect he will not be perfect. What surprises viewers about Sidney is the intensity of his unpleasantness. Rather than keeping to the coded language and restrained emotion characteristic of Regency interactions, Sidney Parker lets loose. Although the substance of his words and actions does not stray too far from the misdeeds of other Austen heroes, Sidney’s explosive style is striking. The physicality of Theo James’ acting enhances the impression of Sidney as quick-tempered.
The central question about Sidney Parker is whether such a seemingly volatile man is capable of sincere and lasting change. To believe that change is possible for Sidney, we must understand the positive qualities that drive his impassioned reactions as well as the circumstances in which they occur. If we also remember that growth for Austen heroes comes when love spurs self-examination, we can agree with Charlotte Heywood that, at the end of Sanditon Season 1, Sidney is “the same man but much improved.”
His Brother’s Keeper
Sidney Parker is the middle brother. He appears to be sufficiently younger than Tom Parker and older than Arthur Parker that each of the brothers is in a different phase of adulthood. Tom is the older family man “beset with worries” about his bungled plans to develop Sanditon, while Arthur is the bachelor baby brother with only imaginary cares about his health. Although, like Arthur Sidney, is a bachelor, and he is far from carefree with “many obligations that [we] know nothing of.” Despite having his own life, the fates of many others seem to rely on Sidney Parker.
Sanditon viewers and Charlotte Heywood first discover Sidney through various second-hand accounts. As Charlotte looks curiously at Sidney’s portrait in the entry of Trafalgar House, Tom tells her that Sidney is “a man of affairs, a man of business.” We also get the first hint that the fate of Tom’s great project rests on Sidney’s shoulders when he says, “we’re counting on his help to make Sanditon fashionable.” This confidence seems misplaced when we hear Lady Denham scoff at the idea and Esther Denham describe Sidney as “very unstable and unreliable.” Even Tom seems to have his doubts when he storms away from breakfast after questioning whether Sidney realizes the “paramount importance of the occasion.” Only good-hearted Mary Parker seems to have unwavering faith, reminding Tom that Sidney delivers, but he “always leaves things to the last minute.”
Sidney’s reluctance to be Sanditon’s savior appears in almost every interaction between him and Tom. His subtle flinch before drinking as Tom declares, “I knew I could depend on you, brother,” betrays an unspoken concern. Having delivered fashionable friends for the ball, as promised, Sidney attempts to take his leave of Sanditon on more than one occasion only to allow Tom to pressure him into staying. When Tom presses him for a progress report on “our enterprise,” Sidney pushes back, saying, “your enterprise, Tom.” And faced with Tom’s repeated and increasing demands for help securing an extension of credit, Sidney eventually refuses, voicing, “Tom, please stop. I can’t be drawn on the situation any longer.”
Yet, despite this refusal and his apparent resolve, Sidney is ultimately drawn back into the business of saving Sanditon or put more accurately the Parkers.
Parker Family Honor
Sidney’s desire to uphold the Parker family honor shows up throughout Sanditon, though sometimes it is cloaked in dishonorable behavior. We see Sidney act dismissive of his sister, Diana, as she complains about the long walk to the pineapple luncheon. In the same scene, he yanks a whimpering Arthur away, contemptuously saying “right.” While these could seem to be the actions of an irritable brother, we might also view them as Sidney’s attempt to remove his siblings from Lady Denham’s ridicule.
Similarly, when we watch Sidney shouting at Fred Robinson at the cricket, we might view him as a belligerent man caught up in the heat of the moment. It is, however, what Sidney says that reveals his character. He says, “Don’t you dare talk to my brother like that!” after Fred has publicly accused Tom of being a self-centered cheat. Viewers know the facts behind Fred’s accusations; Sidney does not. Even after he learns the truth, Sidney tries to help Tom save face, encouraging him to come back and play out the game.
Sidney’s brutish behavior at Sanditon’s first ball also stems from his concern with family honor. He obediently asks Charlotte to dance in keeping with Tom’s desire that the ball be a success. As Charlotte questions whether he truly cares about making Sanditon fashionable, Sidney recoils and spits out, “for my brother’s sake, I do.” And, of course, there’s the infamous balcony tongue lashing. If we wade past the harsh tone and unfiltered Regency misogyny into the heart of his diatribe, we find Sidney again defending family honor. Sidney hears Charlotte’s casual remarks, which closely echo Esther’s harsher judgments, as insults to his brothers and the family venture. He is appalled that a newcomer and beneficiary of Parker hospitality would so glibly call out his family’s failings.
Another reason for Sidney’s balcony tirade is that Charlotte’s assessment of him as the “sensible brother” hits entirely too close to the truth. Sidney has been thrust into the role of family guardian and problem-solver, and Tom does not appear to believe any limits exist on how much Sidney should do. Sidney tries to protect himself from these demands in two ways: flight and fight.
Here, There, and Everywhere
Sidney typically spends as little time as possible in Sanditon. Tom implies that though he lives in London, Sidney’s “importing and exporting” business takes him “here, there, and everywhere.” Tom later reveals that Sidney “sailed to Antigua in a bid to forget” his first love. From a conversation between him and Mrs. Griffiths, we learn that Sidney still spends time abroad. Perhaps his initial flight from heartbreak has become a tactic for Sidney to avoid disagreeable feelings. We know that the “man he was never quite returned.”
Sidney comes down from London at the last possible minute. He’s in a hurry to leave again, explaining to Tom there’s not enough excitement in Sanditon to keep him and his fashionable friends entertained. He may well need to get farther away than the coves, where he flees after an altercation with Tom. Sidney stays longer in Sanditon only because he needs to discipline his ward, Georgiana Lambe. He tries to avoid the family outing to Dr. Fuch’s demonstration and ducks out when he can no longer tolerate the spectacle.
Sidney’s surprise return in Season 1, Episode 4 hints at his attraction to Charlotte. Once he determines he’s made a mistake in trusting Charlotte, Sidney again flees Sanditon, determined not to return. His commitment to lend moral support to a friend in a time of “romantic need” brings Sidney back, but he promptly announces to Mrs. Griffiths that he plans to avoid Sanditon (and Tom and Charlotte) for the rest of the summer. Sidney’s plans change yet again only after he secures a promise from Tom to be more honest and responsible, and he recognizes that he has underestimated Charlotte and his feelings for her. Sidney’s final decision to stay and make a life in Sanditon is undone not by a desire to flee but by his commitment to fight for the Parker family.
Give As Good As He Gets
Watching Sidney fight for Tom is a surprising change after watching him fight against Tom’s demands, often explosively.
One of my favorite scenes is when Sidney springs out of his chair while yelling, “Why not try living within your means? That would help.” While this outburst appears characteristic of Sidney, it is important to watch Tom’s behavior and tone leading up to it. Tom is forceful and frantic, raising his own voice. He provokes Sidney with the desperate, accusatory question, “What exactly do I do now?” — in other words, how can you abandon me? More characteristic is Sidney’s remorse when he realizes he has risen to Tom’s provocation. He pauses and apologizes. (I’m sure someone has a tally of the number of times Sidney says, “I’m sorry.”)
Whether with Tom or others, Sidney is capable of controlling his resentment but does not always seem to want to expend the energy necessary. From his first clifftop appearance, we discover Sidney Parker’s two faces — a man capable of matching Mary’s warm, gentle energy while at the same time snubbing Charlotte, a gawking stranger. Similarly, in his first substantial interaction with Georgiana, we see a commandeering Sidney declare, “What you want is neither here nor there” before, perceiving her dismay, he softens to reassure her that he has her best interests at heart.
When Crowe speaks in lewd terms about Georgiana, in defense of her honor, Sidney pounds the table with his fist while glaring. Minutes later, he matches Lord Babington’s calm tone offering an expansive explanation for his concern. In one of the more memorable scenes, where James’ physicality is on brilliant display, we see Sidney stammer before deciding to release the full force of his fear and anger – “YOU FORGOT??” While his shout is thunderous, it matches the panicked energy in Charlotte’s voice.
Recognizing that Sidney often mirrors the energy around him, whether intense or softer, allows us to understand that perhaps more than others his mood is affected by his sense of threat or safety.
Choosing to Be Better, Truer
Sidney alternates between displays of concern and callousness throughout Sanditon, but finally breaks this cycle when he internalizes some of Charlotte’s and Georgiana’s observations about him.
Early Signs of Promise
Even before the epiphanies of Episode 6, we see signs that Sidney has the potential to change.
The beach walk with “Admiral Heywood,” where he confesses that his early judgment was perhaps wrong reflects a willingness to reevaluate his own opinions. Similarly, he openly confesses his biases when he compliments Charlotte on her capable handling of Old Stringer’s injury. As proof that he no longer dismisses Charlotte, Sidney is the first to accept her offer to play cricket, with minimal hesitation. Although his attempt to explain the rules seems like a resurgence of his misogyny, it could also be viewed as a benevolent desire to help her avoid embarrassment.
With Georgiana, Sidney continuously reassures her that he has her best interests at heart and that he is striving to be a better guardian. He is completely destabilized when Charlotte accuses him of racism and turning a blind eye to slavery. We do not learn during Sanditon Season 1 what happened in Antigua, but Sidney assures Tom and Georgiana that he wants to make amends. In one of the more prophetic statements, Sidney tells Tom, “I will gladly own my mistakes, but I can’t own yours.”
Giving His Whole Self
Sadly, as Sidney decides to own his mistakes, he does take on everyone else’s. Interestingly, during the London carriage ride, it is Sidney who decides to take deep breaths and deescalate despite Charlotte’s assaults on his character and motivations. Perhaps, the quarters are too close to withstand his outbursts or perhaps Sidney has determined his energy is better spent connecting rather than keeping Charlotte at arm’s length. His fate is decided when Charlotte strikes at the heart of his disconnection, accusing him of being “insensitive to feeling.”
Unfortunately, as Sidney becomes the best and truest version of himself, his sense of duty also increases. He somehow stretches his own finances to pay both Otis’ and Tom’s debts. In an attempt to promote Tom’s regatta, he invites to Sanditon, the fashionable ex-fiancée who broke his heart. He interrupts the most important conversation of his life to escort gate-crashing Edward Denham out of the ball and onto a coach. He heads up the efforts to extinguish the inferno. And, in the ultimate act of selflessness, he puts his family’s financial security and honor ahead of his own happiness.
Sidney Parker is no longer a brutish, outlier, heavily-defended from the demands that come with family ties. Instead, the breathless man on the clifftops watching his chance at love pulled away is firmly rooted in the fraternal love that Charlotte has nourished in him … to the detriment of their romantic happiness.
Sidney Parker is changed for the better and for good.