I’m sorry Mr Darcy. Persuasion is Jane Austen’s best book. Here’s why

Jane Austen fans tend to be complacent. You can cite the opening line of Pride and Prejudice as proof of your dedication. They analyzed Emma’s every move and misstep. They compare every man they meet to Mr. Darcy (and secretly find every one of them utterly flawed). You own at least one dress with an empire waist. Austen’s books – she has only written six – were published more than 200 years ago. But the stories, characters and relationships still resonate.

A new Austen adaptation of a book that smug fans rarely refer to has arrived on Netflix. Use our guide to convince them their best work is persuasion.

Love is not just about sudsy meetings. Women don’t always despise decent men at first meeting. You don’t have to be headstrong, sultry, manic pixie dream girls to find love. The plot of Persuasion begins with the story of the couple. Anne Elliot and handsome Frederick Wentworth were engaged. Friends, family and a godmother (who all meant well) persuaded her to cancel. He had no fortune, few prospects. She was young, pretty and wealthy. She could do better. We meet her eight years later. Anne, now 27, is still unmarried and her family almost broke up. Wentworth is a Navy captain, rich, single and back in the neighborhood. Austen’s plot isn’t about discovery, it’s about whether there can be second chances among changed people.

Persuasion is the classic for adults. It is the last novel Austen completed before her death in 1817. She was then 42 years old, unmarried, her health was declining and her confidence in her own talents was waning. She also had a brief romantic relationship with someone at 19 and accepted a proposal from someone else at 27. It is possible that writing this book was not easy for her. There is joke but no banter. Little satire and no generally accepted truths.

I’m sorry Mr Darcy. Persuasion is Jane Austen’s best book. Here’s why

Anne is quite the heroine. She is the quietest, most introspective, and practical of all the Austen protagonists. She is dealing with a vain, snobbish father; an unmarried older sister who spends money recklessly; and her own unacknowledged regrets. When Wentworth meets Anne for the first time since the split, he says she was “so changed that he shouldn’t have known her again.” Where Austen’s other heroines are making flying comebacks, Anne shrugs in resignation.

Love is worth waiting for and working for. In Austen’s other books, at least a few happy endings come early. Persuasion makes both parties fight. Once dumped, Wentworth must confront old feelings and his ego. Anne must acknowledge her own desires and weigh them against the opinions of others. And readers need to think about what makes us love and trust the people we do.

As they move towards love (although some detours) Austen’s brilliant social insight has more room to shine. Anne says that women “live at home, quiet, locked away, and our emotions chase us”. You are socially predisposed to stay in love. Men “always have a job, pursuits, businesses of some sort to bring you back into the world immediately.” They’re just less inclined to languish.

It has the best love letter. At least the best in an Austen novel. Sometime towards the end, Anne is in a pub talking to a friend. Wentworth is seated at a table within earshot. He writes her a letter that enlightens what the looks, chance encounters and charged moments couldn’t. No spoilers here, but a little reads, “You pierce my soul. I’m half agony, half hope.” Nobody in Pemberley, Sussex or Mansfield Park was so eloquent.

Dakota Johnson plays Anne Elliot, Henry Golding is the charming but sleazy Mr. Elliot.  (NICK WALL/NETFLIX)
Dakota Johnson plays Anne Elliot, Henry Golding is the charming but sleazy Mr. Elliot. (NICK WALL/NETFLIX)

The film looks promising. There have been several adaptations since the BBC produced a mini-series in 1960. The Netflix version, released on July 15th, is light and frothy. Cosmo Jarvis, who played Barney Thompson in Peaky Blinders, is Wentworth. There is Henry Golding, quite charming, as a distant relative of Anne, with an eye on the family’s title and property. Dakota Johnson frequently addresses the camera as Anne. Smug fans will find plenty to like.


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