In a society where women either marry or work, deciding to become a governess is consigning oneself to lonely spinsterhood—at least in the minds of Charlotte’s friends. And yet she still holds the interest of Colonel Lennox, who compliments her profusely as she walks to her new job.
It’s not an easy one: a servant, Mrs. Wheatley, tells Charlotte that the staff of Alexander Colbourne’s house have placed bets on how long she’ll last. Most governesses haven’t stayed more than a month. Alexander’s niece, Augusta, is undermining and rude: she makes incessant biting comments about Charlotte’s lack of a husband. His daughter, Leonora, would rather wear pants than a dress, and play pirate or soldier.
Charlotte embraces Leonora’s interests, allowing her to collect snails to examine and telling her to wear whatever clothing is most sensible for her activity. But Alexander wants Charlotte to teach both girls to be proper, marriageable ladies, not give them a full education. Even so, when Augusta sabotages Charlotte by sending Leonora in to interrupt Alexander at work for a magnifying glass for the snails, he seems to be warming to Charlotte’s stubborn insistence on imparting wide-ranging knowledge.
Georgiana is equally stubborn in her resistance to suitors. She has an ally in Arthur, who happily talks of other matters with her, such as what her late guardian Sidney may have been doing in Antigua on her behalf. But when Arthur takes a liking to the independent-minded artist Charles Lockhart after Lockhart sketches him while he naps on the beach, he agrees to help endear Charles to Georgiana.
Georgiana is also shepherding a romance, giving advice to Charlotte’s sister Alison on her infatuation with a young soldier who “saved” her after their “borrowed” carriage crashed. Alison only learns his name—Captain Carter—when his comrade Fraser delivers an invitation for a dinner to the Parker household on behalf of Colonel Lennox. Georgiana brings Alison to the military camp, where they watch Carter and Fraser duel. Carter requests Alison’s first dance at the dinner, and then Fraser insists that they leave.
Colonel Lennox also quickly claims Charlotte’s first dance when she arrives at the dinner. Arthur switches placecards so that Georgiana and Charles are seated next to each other. They continue to acerbically trade wits, to their secret enjoyment, and agree on their dislike of the military. Charles wins the enmity of all—and the hidden admiration of Georgiana—by toasting Napoleon and his abolition of slavery—no matter that the French general is the British army’s enemy.
Georgiana later joins Charles outside for a conversation. He says he no longer cares what others think, and recommends such independence to Georgiana. She likes the advice, and tells Mary the next day that she will not accept any more suitors. If she marries, it will be on her own terms.
At the end of the dinner, Charles invites Arthur over for port wine. Arthur takes him up on it; he’s fascinated by Charles, and frustrated with his brother. Tom wants to make a good impression on Colonel Lennox in order to convince him to build a permanent barracks in Sanditon, even though Arthur has drawn up plans to develop the site as a theater. Tom even allowed Lennox to coax him into playing dice, despite his insistence that he can’t lose any money because he needs to pay off Sidney’s widow. Lennox puts his own money at stake for Tom, and Tom discovers he loves the thrill of gambling.
Alison is flushed with the thrill of romance, especially after she quotes poetry to Carter and he says he knows and loves the poet—but he’s bluffing, and is out of his depth. After the party, he desperately enjoins Fraser—whom Alison was forced to sit next to at the dinner—to teach him of poetry and the refined things that Alison likes.
Esther believes Edward is similarly being false—but about his entire person. He claims to have reformed, but Esther won’t be fooled, despite his attempts at charm. In order to see how far he will go to keep up what she believes is a charade, she tells him to dance with Miss Hankins, who is delighted to accept. Miss Hankins earlier recommended to Esther a midwife who helps with conception, noticing her sadness at the mention of children; this is a way Esther can repay her kindness.
Colonel Lennox at least believes that Edward is a good man. Lady Denham invites Lennox to tea to hear his unguarded opinion, but he brings Edward along, believing that Edward sincerely wants to atone for his wrongs to the family. Edward apologizes to Esther, begging her to believe that he has changed.
Lennox apparently has a less favorable opinion of Alexander Colbourne. Having asked Charlotte about her governess job and advised her to open up to Augusta in order to get the young woman to accept her, he was shocked to hear of Charlotte’s employer. He knows Alexander “only by reputation,” but seems upset by his mention.
Charlotte still takes Lennox’s advice, telling the recently orphaned Augusta that she, too, knows grief, over Sidney’s death. She asks Augusta to share a memory of her parents, and Augusta says she would play piano for them—perhaps she could play for Charlotte on her late aunt’s spinet? Leonora’s mother died long ago, but Alexander doesn’t like to speak of her, and the spinet is locked. Augusta has the key, and Charlotte thinks nothing of it, playing away at the out-of-tune piano.
Alexander appears and demands that Charlotte stop—it’s locked for a reason. Charlotte takes the blame, even though Alexander suspects Augusta. When Leonora runs through in shorts, saying Charlotte told her she could wear what she wants, Charlotte prepares to be fired by Alexander. She delivers a passionate defense and criticizes Alexander for his absence from the girls’ lives and strict idea of their education. He tells her to return the next day—she will remain their governess. He has lost his bet on how long she would last.
As Charlotte leaves for the day, Augusta asks Charlotte why she lied for her. Charlotte sympathizes with Augusta: she has lost her parents and the life she knew, and now must forge a new path.
At the Denham manor, a surprising guest appears: Clara Brereton, Lady Denham’s banished niece. Lady Denham orders her thrown out, but Clara begs for help. She has been used and abandoned, and is pregnant—with Edward’s child.