Jane Austen’s Persuasion is growing in popularity

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There are many questions a person might ask after watching the trailer for the new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which begins streaming Friday.

What else is the “Fleabag” about? Did the term ‘exe’ actually exist in early 19th century Britain? And is Dakota Johnson’s radiant, irreverent Anne Elliot a brilliant modern performance or a blasphemous crime?

But for me, there’s another question that I’ve been obsessing over for the past two years.

Why does Persuasion – Austen’s long-overlooked and underappreciated final novel about a regretful near-virgin – suddenly have one moment?

I noticed the phenomenon in the summer of 2020. The lockdown restrictions and 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 novels, there are the Big Three: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. They’re the trusty crowd pleasers with the notoriety, the volumes of fan fiction, the oodles of movie remakes.

Against the lively energy of these novels, Persuasion can be a melancholic book: it centers on Anne Elliot, the sensible middle daughter of an aristocrat who falls in love with a poor sailor but is persuaded by her snooty family to end their engagement. Eight years later she is a spinster with money problems; he is a successful, wealthy naval officer. Circumstances throw them together again.

Around the time others were starting to bake bread and grow spring onions, I re-read Persuasion. And my longstanding appreciation for this novel became a deep, enduring magic. I’ve listened to the audiobook on long walks, texted quotes to friends, flipped storylines in my head in the shower. (I was so engrossed in this novel that I even aspired to do a podcast on Persuasion.)

Then, in September 2020, the mystery deepened. Persuasion became a movie.

Except for this movie. Another film produced by Searchlight Pictures, starring Sarah Snook who plays Shiv Roy in HBO’s Succession. Netflix announced its own Persuasion adaptation in April 2021, just months before the Bedlam theater company staged the play in New York. An adaptation, mind you, that differed from the new theatrical adaptation shown in London and Oxford earlier this year.

(The Persuasion field has gotten so crowded that Searchlight Pictures has suspended production, Snook told Vogue Australia.)

See? This 205-year-old book is suddenly in the zeitgeist. And I wanted to hear some theories as to why.

“This book is about figuring out your priorities,” said Alice Victoria Winslow.

Winslow co-wrote the new Netflix film. She had loved the book since college, when she was taking a Jane Austen class, and lamented that there weren’t newer and more popular adaptations. (Her writing partner, Ron Bass, is a legendary screenwriter known for spawning box office hits like My Best Friend’s Wedding and Stepmom.)

Anne makes sense to modern readers: she’s older, more thoughtful, and has to choose between priorities: the man she loves, the friend and mentor she cherishes, and the snooty family she feels indebted to.

“She’s kind of not concerned with getting married,” Winslow said. “There’s just a lot going on for her that’s outside of the marriage-as-aspirations storyline.”

Damianne Scott sees another consequence of our pandemic era: caregiver fatigue.

Scott, who teaches English composition at two Cincinnati colleges, is the creator of the Black Girl Loves Jane Facebook community. She’s also writing her own novel, a modern take on what else? – “Belief”, located in the present tense Black Mega Church.

Scott points out that Anne is a caregiver. She spends much of the book placating her sisters, nursing various family members after serious injuries, and acting as her family’s de facto house manager and financial planner. Getting stuck in these roles sharpens her regret at the alternative life she could have led as the wife of a naval officer.

“A lot of people, including myself, are in the role of caregiver [that] they haven’t made up their minds,” Scott said. “But life and circumstances forced her to do it. And so people can relate to Anne in that regard too.”

Perhaps the part of Persuasion that feels most resonant now is the sheer amount of time the protagonist is stuck thinking — it’s been almost eight years since she’s seen Captain Wentworth, and she’s spent every day thinking about it thinking about her other life and wondering if she is wasting her current one.

“The novel is so obsessed with time,” says Stefanie Markovits, who teaches English literature at Yale. “And I think that most reflects the moment we’re in.”

The pandemic has made us similarly aware of time: feeling like the last two years 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 this time of need began.

When – spoiler alert – Anne finally reunites with Wentworth at the end of the novel, there is “a desire to at least imagine that those eight years weren’t wasted,” Markovits said.

“Are they happier now than they would have been, or not? We do not know it. Anna doesn’t know. She doesn’t pretend to know,” she said. “Yet she’ll try to wrest some kind of meaning from the way time has flown.”

“That’s what we’re all looking for now, isn’t it?” Markovits added. “We’re looking for silver linings to this experience.”

This real, profound loss may be why the criticism of this new film and its irreverent, scathing tone has been so ardent.

The Independent called it “vaguely humiliating to watch.” The Guardian called it “a farce”.

“I don’t get it,” wrote writer and essayist Brandon Taylor in a scathing essay about the film. “It’s like they looked at Persuasion and said let’s make this a real love story, but they removed all the bits that make it a real love story.”

The audience of this film is not averse to radical reinterpretations of Austen novels. This year’s Fire Island, a queer, souped-up yet delightfully serious retelling of Pride and Prejudice, won rave reviews, as did 2020’s spicy and sizzling Emma remake, which revealed whole bare regency buttocks the audience.

When I asked Winslow about the backlash over the trailer, she was magnanimous.

“I love this book so much. And everyone involved in this project loves the book so much. We all have a deep and long lasting 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, “Persuasion” fans may not be feeling playful. We feel sad and stricken and weary and taken for granted, with clear eyes on what we have lost and the stakes of the time we have left. And we want to see our own melancholy reflected back to us.

We know what Anne Elliot went through. Because we’ve been through it too.

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