“The essence and spirit of Austen’s work are fundamentally changed”: a historian’s review of Persuasion
Netflix’s 2022 adaptation of Jane Austen’s final completed novel is out – and it’s not a traditional take on the Regency romance. Dr Lizzie Rogers, a historian specialising in the 18th century, explores an adaptation that subverts expectations
Audiences have waited in half agony, half hope for Netflix and director Carrie Cracknell’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, which was published after the author’s death in 1817.
It is one of the least adapted of Austen’s works, yet contains her most mature heroine, Anne Elliot, and arguably her most mature subject matter: that of lost love and confidence in one’s own choices.
Who is persuaded in Persuasion?
These two themes immediately dominate the opening scenes of Persuasion. Actor Dakota Johnson plays Anne Elliot, who declares that she was once almost married, but that she allowed herself to be persuaded into rejecting her lover due to his lack of rank and riches.
Now, eight years later, Anne tells us – by breaking the fourth wall – that she is single and thriving, against a Bridget Jones-esque montage of drinking wine, crying in the bath and lying face down on her bed.
Anne Elliot was not someone Jane Austen knew, nor is she a representation of the author herself. Nonetheless there are remarkable parallels between Persuasion's heronine and one real-life figure ain Regency England...
What is the plot of Persuasion?
The story opens as Anne’s family – led by her vain father Walter Elliot (played by Richard E Grant) who believes his title gives him undue distinction and an excuse to overspend – must vacate the family seat at Kellynch Hall so that they might rent it out to pay their debts.
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Anne is biting in her commentary of her family, her voice emerging as a cross between the Anne Elliot of the novel and the satirical narration of Jane Austen herself.
Alarm is raised as it is revealed the tenants are to be Admiral and Mrs Croft, who is the sister of Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis): none other than Anne’s lost love. Worse still, the dashing captain is coming to visit.
How to watch Persuasion
Persuasion was released on Netflix in the UK and US on 15 July 2022.
Watch the trailer below:
The nature of marriage
Unlike any previous adaptation – because, as with any Austen, there is not only the original source material to follow but the precedent of every previous treatment on screen – it seems that many of the major characters in the film know of the significance of what passed between Anne and Wentworth.
The result is increased exposition, and while this changes the expected story, it also allows for a more pointed discussion of the transactional nature of marriage amongst the upper classes during this period and the wide awareness of its purpose.
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In Austen’s England, your position determined your marriage prospects; Wentworth was a poor sailor, Anne the middle daughter of a baronet. Whilst marrying for love was becoming increasingly common during the Regency period, securing family fortunes, property and lineage was still an important consideration, especially with a family as in dire a financial situation as the Elliots.
Anne is soon thrown into Wentworth’s path as she takes up residence with her younger sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) at the neighbouring Uppercross estate. It’s here that Anne inhabits the role of maiden aunt – a role Austen herself knew only too well – as a support to her two young and vibrant sisters-in-law, one of whom, Louisa, soon catches the eye of Wentworth.
- Read more | The real reason Jane Austen never married
How Persuasion subverts Regency norms
It is from here where things begin to subtly, but with larger ramifications, diverge from the novel. For their part, Anne and Wentworth are given fleeting scenes alone in which they discuss their previous relationship and their status as “exes”. There are fewer of the lingering looks that have become the hallmark of not only Austen adaptations, but Regency romances more broadly.
Taking a creative approach that offers a fresh take on the genre is important, and the moment Anne shows a bundle of sheet music and explains it to be a “playlist” Wentworth once made her is a fun example of that. Yet reducing the intense gazes between characters and replacing it with conversation has the problem that it feels too modern.
Though the Regency era was an age of scandal, with the elite in particular pushing boundaries, Austen’s heroines and heroes follow the bounds of propriety in which their virtue was unquestionable. Regularly being alone, long enough to have a frank and impassioned discussion about a previous attachment – as occurs in this adaptation of Persuasion, for instance in the sunset scene at Lyme Regis – or dancing too many dances together at a ball (more than two in a row was considered suspect), was careless and implicated each party negatively.
As hope for a reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth accelerates, we’re introduced to Anne’s cousin, Mr William Elliot (Henry Golding), the heir to her father’s land and title, and a man who will stoop low to get them. In the film, he has to reveal his own duplicitous nature, as his foil in the novel – Anne’s schoolfriend Mrs Smith – is omitted from the film plot.
He succeeds in being charming enough that Anne might consider him, but not so smooth that he does not thwart the coming together of the couple who have waited eight years for it to happen.
The significance of Wentworth’s letter
In Regency reality, a man was not even supposed to send a private letter to a woman he was not related to, unless it was a concrete marriage proposal – which makes the few times this happens in Austen’s writing, including Wentworth’s revelatory note to Anne at the climax of Persuasion, all the more exciting.
Here is one of the core differences between the film and its source material: the passion and longing between the two characters in the novel is heightened because they cannot have the space to discuss it; in Cracknell’s film, this is somewhat lost amongst the additions to the plot. As a consequence, the happy ending loses some of its euphoric magnitude.
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Persuasion captures Austen’s England, but not Austen herself
The costumes and settings are beautifully shot and take us right back to Regency Bath and Lyme Regis, where the second half of the film takes place. Both are locales that Austen knew well.
Persuasion is often thought of as a very personal novel for its author, as somebody who didn’t marry but did have her own romances, and who had strong family connections to the navy through her brothers Francis and Charles.
Though the broad strokes of Cracknell’s Persuasion are aligned with that in the novel, the essence and spirit of Austen’s work are fundamentally changed. The characters, not the watching audience, are the ones entirely aware of what is unfolding, losing the sense of lost hope that permeates much of the novel: we are unsure how to root for the Anne and Wentworth shown on screen, despite Anne’s commentary.
- Read more | Jane Austen’s tips for “health and happiness”
Adjustments to the pace, insertion of additional scenes and, perhaps most of all, the introdcution of 21st-century language (“exes”, “self-care”, and the exclamation “Love me, you idiot!” are a few standout examples) into the world of the early-19th century undo much of the feeling of the novel.
What this adaptation does do is make clear the resonance of Austen’s storytelling for modern audiences. The romance and character tropes are presented as those that could easily fit into the modern age, despite existing within a fictional romantic world set some 200 years ago. The execution is jarring, but the message that Austen is as relevant as ever is a comforting one.
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Is Persuasion too modern?
It is difficult to adapt Austen. Entering the pantheon of Regency romance comes with weighty expectation, but when that romance originated with the pen of Jane Austen, it ascends to a different level of scrutiny and is bound to elicit conversation with any approach taken.
This 2022 version of Persuasion looked to offer a fresh and sumptuous treatment that would underscore Anne Elliot’s importance two centuries after she first appeared in print, yet, in transforming a few too many things, it veers off course. Dakota Johnson shines, but not as the Anne Elliot audiences may have wanted.
Dr Lizzie Rogers is an historian and writer who specialises in women, learning and historic houses in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and their depiction in popular culture.