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(Not) Persuadable: The Discourse About Persuasion

The conventional wisdom around the most recent cinematic take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion (2022) hardened almost immediately. Too Fleabag-y, too Bridgerton-y, and not Austen-y or Persuasion-y enough to tempt me was the consensus. I focus here mainly on U.S. based publications and reactions, but British GQ sums up takes from Britain’s papers. It’s worth slowing down to examine these takes in some detail to get a sense of the discomfort with this particular modernization of an Austen novel. And it’s worth thinking through why not just this modernization but modernization full stop is so fraught when it comes to the figure of Austen and the particularities of her novels. Doing this involves looking closely not just at what reviewers are saying, but how they’re saying it.

Nick Dames’s review in The Atlantic from 2017 of three books about Austen sets the scene for understanding the contentious dynamics around updating Austen and Austen as always already up to date. The animating question he asks as he delves into Jane Austen: Secret Radical (2016), The Making of Jane Austen (2017), and Teenage Writings (2017) is: “Do we read Austen to flee modernity, or to see it clearly?” Two distinct answers present themselves in his telling. The first is to “read her as her contemporaries might have—to deprettify the novels and show her immersion in the world, with all its political messiness and social friction.” The other “takes the prettifications at face value and asks how they happened.” The push and pull between these two relationships to Austen is evident in the reactions to the newest version of Persuasion; reviewers crave an immersion in the world of Austen that they feel they’re denied even as many try to show how the prettification happened by focusing on recent Austen-adjacent productions.

Dames’s formulations are powerfully illuminating. On one view they can be used to suggest that the complaints about the new Persuasion are worries that the movie is too pretty, that it isn’t Regency enough—that behind the empire-waist dresses is today’s athleisure. On another view they might be used to suggest that detractors of the production are concerned that it isn’t pretty enough—that carefully tracing the lineage from Regency romance to Rom-Com is elided in the mashup of Austen’s novel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character, and the streaming version of Julia Quinn’s novels. What occurs to me about the reactions to this version of Persuasion, though, is that they are so vocal about how poorly they think the novel is updated, and simultaneously how they also insist that they aren’t against updating as such, they’re just against it in this particular instance.

Carrie Cracknell’s directorial take on Austen’s last completed novel feels in some respects like it’s set in Austen’s 1818. Its visual lushness—sweeping outdoor views and overripe interiors (those macaron stands!)—is combined not with Austen’s own prose or language, but with the common cant of today. In other words, it feels destined to satisfy neither view of Austen that Dames proposes. NPR certainly takes this view: “The film tries to be of its own time and contemporary, with Austen characters talking about self-care and being ‘single and thriving.’”

A complaint in reviews of Cranknell’s Persuasion is about its use of language common to today, not particular to Austen. The Los Angeles Times’s short-tempered, highly engaging review does a side-by-side comparison of Austen’s language and the film’s. For my own part, I confess that I am with Cassandra Austen, not known for complimenting her novel-writing younger sister, in my admiration of this novel’s prose. After all, Austen describes Anne this way: “She has been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning.” Cassandra says what many of us feel about this line, “Dear dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold.” It’s not entirely surprising, then, that the language in the film kicked up lots of dust. Anne’s (Dakota Johnson) insistence that she’s “thriving” eight years on from being persuaded to reject Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) is catnip for reviewers uncomfortable with the updates to Austen’s language—especially because she’s drinking red wine straight from the bottle. The New Statesmen carps about its “sassy millennial tone.” In an otherwise largely positive review even The Hollywood Reporter arches an eyebrow: “‘Now we’re worse than strangers, we’re exes,’ moans Anne, in a line I’ll admit made me both laugh and wince.” The New York Times is staid enough that it can be expected to fret over what it calls “meme-ish truisms” of the same line. Slightly more surprising is Rolling Stone piling on: “‘There’s nothing worse than thinking your life is ruined, then realizing you’ve got much, much further to fall,’ Anne says. Then she trips. It’s that kind of movie.”

The influence of recent Austen-adjacent productions, especially Fleabag (2016-2019) and Bridgerton (2020 – ), and how this Persuasion mimics them to ill effect is also a common complaint. Variety calls the film “a ‘Fleabag’-style Jane Austen Adaptation.” In a parenthetical aside it explains what it means by this: “(with its fourth-wall-breaking gimmicks).” Polygon presses on this a bit when it thinks through what it means to have “Anne narrate the movie. And not just narrate it, but talk directly to the camera, throwing it pithy glances and rolling her eyes in response to her obnoxious relatives. She’s a Regency-era ‘Fleabag,’ even though that characterization is at total odds with the original character.” I’m not entirely sure, however, that Austen’s golden prose is as fully at odds with the movie’s debt to Fleabag as some reviewers suggest. It’s at least worth entertaining the notion that Anne narrates Cracknell’s version because in important respects Anne narrates Austen’s novel. The nature of Austen’s narrator, the meaning of her irony, and the line between character and narrator in Austen’s novels are unsettled issues even today. D.A. Miller’s influential argument in Jane Austen, Or the Secret of Style (2003) is by no means the only or last word on the subject, but it merits mentioning here because of what he says about how Anne takes on the function of the narrator. Of Anne he writes, “She disables the ironizing inherent in Austen’s narration by having already conscripted it as a function of her own scathing self-intimacy. The narration in Persuasion, then, can do little to Anne that she herself has not already done” (71). On Miller’s view there’s vanishingly little distance between Anne and the narrator because Anne herself is already doing the work of the narrator. Fleabag itself has a fair bit of its own scathing self-intimacy for its title character. What’s more, Fleabag uses its own technique at the very end to put a stop to that technique; if any of these pieces mentions Fleabag’s famous shake of her head in the final scene to stop the camera following her, then I confess that I missed it.

Bridgerton is the other ready-to-hand production to which Persuasion is unfavorably compared. Lots of reviews mention Bridgerton, but it’s Vox that develops the comparison in especially interesting detail, “While it aims for the candy-coated Regency pastiche that Bridgerton made fashionable, it’s too stolidly convinced of its own virtues to revel in the sudsiness that renders Bridgerton so satisfying.” Bridgerton is a shorthand, it turns out, for a couple of related concerns. Style first and foremost: the visual cues that signal Regency and a very specific kind of Regency—no destitute, desperate people stealing chickens in these productions as there are in the Kate Beckinsdale Emma from 1996. Attitude, second of all, then. Bridgerton is about the self-conscious collision of yesterday and today, the past and the present, Regency and early 21st century. What’s more, that self-awareness is light and bright and sparkling. Others note aspects of the distances between Persuasion and its original; I note an under-addressed aspect: some reviews mention the racial diversity of the cast, but virtually none take up in a sustained way the role of BIPOC actors and characters in the production—what they reveal about Austen’s day, what they reveal about our own, and the relationship between the two.

Reviews invariably take up the issue of modernization and how it glosses the original by referencing already existing contemporary filmic interpretations of Austen. We know that Austen gets modernized. We know Austen has been modernized. We are not against updates as such, but we are just very against this particular update. Such is the common cant. The Los Angeles Times review spends some time on just this topic, “I wouldn’t object to such anachronism on principle … and certainly not on purist grounds. One motion picture’s style must not be the rule of another’s, and some very fine ones … have subjected Austen’s work to any number of cultural, temporal, geographical and vernacular liberties.” Definitely okay with an up-to-the-minute Austen; the LA Times has company on just this score—many of the elements here are present in other reviews. Some sort of explicit “of course I like modernizations” is a signal feature. I myself profess a wish, if we’re going on about twists on Austen’s novels, that American reviewers could find it within themselves to mention Bride and Prejudice (2005) and not just Clueless (1995) or Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and the others that invariably turn up in these lists.

A more in sorrow than in anger moment is also central to many of the reviews. Again the L.A. Times is instructive here, “And so the problem with this “Persuasion,” … is not that it translates its source material into an easily digestible, Netflix-friendly comic idiom. It’s that said translation is so hopelessly at odds with what the movie thinks it’s giving us.” Lurking within this Persuasion, the line runs, is a richer, more robust film that is more faithful to the real stuff of Austen. And here I am in some sympathy. A film that ends with Anne and Wentworth sitting on the ground staring out to sea doesn’t catch the heart of Austen’s novel. In Austen’s novel Anne is persuaded out of marriage to Wentworth on the basis of his birth and almost talks herself into marriage to her cousin, William Walter Elliot (Henry Golding), on the same grounds. Anne Elliot, Austen’s highest born heroine, turns away from land, from title, from family, from heritage and continuity towards the sea, towards being a sailor’s wife—this is quite a turn for the author of Pride and Prejudice (1813), a novel totally committed to making its heroine into the mistress of a country house. The social, cultural, and even political import of Anne choosing the sailor and the sea over the land and the title is obscured in the movie.

By existing in a space between a general openness to updates and a high level of disdain for this particular update, these reviews largely sidestep the question that so preoccupies Dames and the books he reviews: what happens when we deprettify Austen? What happens when we take the prettifications for granted and work from there? A new adaptation of a well-known novel could have been an occasion for thinking more deeply about how the particulars of the source text and of the adaptation mutually illuminate one another. This would mean going beyond noting that Mary calls herself an “empath” to ask what about that language today and how it resonates makes it available for a character as deeply self-involved, self-important, and fundamentally insecure as Mary. It would mean tracking in far more careful detail not just how Bridgerton is source material for this production, but how Austen’s novels are important predecessors of Quinn’s novels. It would also mean looking toward the future, to what’s to come, to imagining what’s possible in as-yet unrealized glosses of familiar, even beloved, texts. All stories, all narratives, all novels—no matter how elongated and stretched or brief and compressed—wrap up. But the ending of the novel is not coterminous with an ending full stop—the narrative points to a future it does not fully bring into view—we never see Anne in her glory at being a sailor’s wife or watch her experience quick alarm. In the end, Fleabag and Anne Elliot—whether on page or screen—do the same thing as all fictional characters: they turn their back to the audience, shake their head at that camera, and walk or sail into an imaginary future.

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