Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ gains popularity
But for me, there is a different question that has obsessed me for two years.
Why did ‘Persuasion’ – Austen’s long-neglected and underappreciated latest novel about a regrettable near-bachelor – suddenly have a moment?
I started noticing the phenomenon in the summer of 2020. The stresses of lockdown and the constant death terror meant all you could do was ask people what they were reading. And everyone, it seemed, was suddenly reading “Persuasion.”
I had felt the same pull. In the land of Austen’s novels, there are the Big Three: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Reason & Sensitivity” and “Emma.” They are a crowd pleaser with name recognition, volumes of fan fiction, millions of movie remakes.
Against the overflowing energy of those novels, “Persuasion” can be a melancholy book: it centers on Anne Elliot, the sensible second daughter of an aristocrat, who falls in love with a poor sailor but is persuaded by her snobbish family to end their engagement. . Eight years later, she’s a regrettable bachelor with money troubles; he is a successful and wealthy naval officer. Circumstances bring them back together.
About the time others started baking bread and growing green onions, I reread “Persuasion.” And my lifelong appreciation for this novel has grown into a deep and lasting delight. I listened to the audiobook on long walks, texted quotes to friends, flipped plot points in my head in the shower. (I was so immersed in this novel that I even aspired to do a podcast on “Persuasion.”)
Then, in September 2020, the mystery deepens. “Persuasion” became a movie.
Except, not this movie. another movie, produced by Searchlight Pictures and with Sarah Snook, who plays Shiv Roy on HBO’s “Succession.” Netflix announced its own “Persuasion” adaptation in April 2021, just months before the Bedlam Theater Company set to stage the play in New York. An adaptation, mind you, that was different from the new theatrical adaptation shown in London and Oxford earlier this year.
(The Persuasion field became so crowded that Searchlight Pictures suspended production, Snook told Vogue Australia.)
See? This 205-year-old book is suddenly in tune with the times. And I wanted to hear some theories on why.
“It’s a book about determining your priorities,” said Alice Victoria Winslow.
Winslow co-wrote the new Netflix movie. She’s loved the book since college, when she took a class from Jane Austen and lamented that there weren’t newer, more popular film adaptations. (His writing partner, Ron Bass, is a script legendknown for producing box office hits such as “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “My Stepmother”.)
Anne is accessible to modern readers: she is older, more contemplative and must choose between her priorities: the man she loves, the friend and mentor she appreciates, and the snobby family she feels compelled to take care.
“She’s kind of not preoccupied with the need to get married,” Winslow said. “There’s just a lot going on for her that’s outside of the marriage plot as an aspiration.”
Damianne Scott sees another corollary to our pandemic era: caregiver fatigue.
Scott, who teaches English composition at two Cincinnati colleges, is the creator of the Facebook community “The black girl loves Jane.” She’s also writing her own novel, a modern take on — what else? — “Persuasion”, located in a Black Mega Church.
Scott points out that Anne is a caregiver. She spends much of the book appeasing her sisters, treating various family members after serious injuries, and serving as her family’s de facto household manager and financial planner. Getting stuck in these roles sharpens her regret of the alternative life she could have lived as the wife of a naval officer.
“A lot of people, myself included, are in helping roles [that] they didn’t choose,” Scott said. “But life and circumstances forced them to be. And so people can also identify with Anne in this notion.
Perhaps the part of “Persuasion” that resonates most now is the time the protagonist is stuck thinking – it’s been almost eight years since she’s seen Captain Wentworth, and she’s spent every day contemplating her other life, wondering if she’s wasting her current one.
“The novel is so obsessed with time,” said Stefanie Markovits, who teaches English literature at Yale. “And in my opinion, that is what best reflects the moment we find ourselves in.”
The pandemic has made us aware of time in the same way: the feeling that the last two years and more have passed so quickly, or so slowly; the loss of precious moments with the people we love; the need to understand how we have grown (or not) since the beginning of this difficult period.
When – spoiler alert – Anne finally reunites with Wentworth at the end of the novel, there’s “a desire to at least imagine that those eight years haven’t been wasted,” Markovits said.
“Are they happier now than they would have been, or not? We do not know. Anna doesn’t know. She doesn’t pretend to know,” she said. “And yet she will try to salvage some kind of sense of how time has passed.”
“That’s what we’re all looking for now, isn’t it?” Markovits added. “We are looking for silver linings for this experiment.”
This real and profound loss is perhaps why the review of this new film and its irreverent, more sarcastic tone felt so impassioned.
“I don’t understand”, novelist and essayist Brandon Taylor written in a scathing essay on the movie. “It’s like they’re watching Persuasion and they’re like, let’s turn this into a real love story, but they took out all the parts that make it a real love story.”
The audience for this film is not averse to sweeping reinterpretations of Austen’s novels. This year’s “Fire Island,” a queer, gendered, yet deliciously earnest retelling of “Pride and Prejudice,” won rave reviews, as did 2020’s tangy, zippy remake “Emma,” in which full regency bare buttocks were revealed to the audience.
When I asked Winslow about the trailer’s backlash, she was magnanimous.
“I deeply love this book. And everyone involved in this project deeply loves the book. We all have a deep and long emotional connection to the material. So nothing was done carelessly,” Winslow said. “And I hope everyone comes with an open mind…and understands that Austen has such a playful spirit.”
After two years of the pandemic, perhaps “Persuasion” fans aren’t feeling upbeat. We feel sad and overwhelmed with grief, and tired and taken for granted, with clear eyes on what we’ve lost and the stakes of the time we have left. And we want to see our own melancholy reflected on us.
We know what Anne Elliot went through. Because we too have been there.
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