Netflix’s Persuasion is the latest addition to the Jane Austen spin-off industry, flourishing more than two centuries after her death. There are Jane Austen societies in the U.K. and the U.S. where people still pay her homage; her face graced a £10 note released in 2017, on the 200th anniversary of her passing; movies on her novels are regularly made; devoted fans hold Jane Austen picnics dressed in Regency costumes and cross swords with Brontë groups, their natural enemy.
Given the way she still informs discourses, Jane is the sister Shakespeare never had, her novels inspiring everything from pensive BBC classics to violent mash-ups featuring zombies or dominatrices. Netflix’s Persuasion is expectedly OTT, with Austen’s quiet, tentative heroine, Anne Elliot, behaving like a spiffy millennial who could have been a boss babe if she hadn’t been restrained by 19th century mores (her love interest, Wentworth, tells her as much admiringly).
Persuasion (1817), Jane Austen’s last complete novel, is written in what might be called her ‘late style’. The scathing wit of Northanger Abbey (completed in 1803, Austen’s first novel) or Pride and Prejudice (1813) had been scaled down to something mellower, as if the author herself had reached a maturity that no longer allows of heedless mirth. At 27, Anne is an old maid by Regency standards, with the role of the kindly spinster aunt already earmarked for her.
She hasn’t yet given up on everything, but if she still hopes, it’s the kind of statutory hope that the mere act of living bestows. Anne might be seen as the perfect anti-heroine: already wise and self-possessed so that her story cannot be a coming-of-age tale like Sense and Sensibility or Emma. If Anne had been asked about Prince Charming she would probably have said he is a myth, a token of wish fulfilment for female authors like Austen. But then, Anne had her Wentworth. Judged by the Austen canon, Wentworth is a remarkably down-to-earth hero — no landed gentry like Darcy or Mr. Knightley (from Emma), but a self-made man who has made his way up in the navy. Anne had been persuaded to reject him initially, precisely because he wasn’t rich all those years ago, when the two had met and fallen in love. In the intervening eight years, Anne kept her love alive, as did Wentworth.
That the latter remained available is just a stroke of good luck and none is more surprised than Anne herself, with her resigned understanding of the ways of the world. Lightly sketched, he is more like a concession to the genre of romance to which Persuasion willy-nilly belongs. In real life, he would probably have disappeared midway, leaving Anne to find her way alone in the deep, dark woods.
But Anne has wandered alone in the dark woods for so long that she can easily find her way there. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her with her father and two sisters, who give one another stiff competition in their absolute selfishness. The mother substitute is Lady Russell, who always had Anne’s back, barring one decisive occasion, which nearly undoes Anne’s life. Lady Russell is the one who persuaded her to give up Wentworth arguing that he is not wealthy enough to support her. She had Anne’s best interests in mind, of course, but Anne realises she shouldn’t have been guided by her in making such a crucial decision.
Had she possessed Lady Russell’s class prejudices, she wouldn’t have fallen for Wentworth in the first place. Young women do make mistakes but Anne has always been sharp. In larger Europe, the Napoleonic wars, a lingering fallout of the French Revolution, are on and their implications are not lost on Anne, who is a reader, unlike her useless aristocratic family. In choosing Wentworth, she had cast her lot but the people around her are too set in their ways. The indictment of families that swear by dead traditions is evident: they must change their ways to survive, not Anne.
Austen paints Anne’s isolation with subtle strokes. Her family is unbearable, she has nobody to talk to, and she is often overlooked in spite of being the most intelligent. Dakota Johnson, who plays Anne in Netflix’s Persuasion, captures this aspect of her character well, talking to her pet rabbit and to the audience, Fleabag-style, in the absence of empathetic souls around her. In true Romantic-Victorian tradition, Anne’s desolation is projected on to the landscape: the grey sea and the colourless sky of Lyme reflecting her mood in the movie as she is ‘friendzoned’ by Wentworth.
But all this is by way of atmospherics: Netflix’s Persuasion doesn’t plumb the depths of Austen’s novel. It is Austen made easy, seen through Instagram filters. But then, classics survive all kinds of assault and Persuasion too will outlive this onslaught of the banal.