But for me, there’s a different question I’ve been obsessed with for the past two years.
Why is “Persuasion” — Austen’s long-overlooked and underappreciated final novel about a regretful almost-spinster — suddenly having a moment?
I started to notice the phenomenon in the summer of 2020. The constrictions of lockdown and constant mortal terror meant that all you could do was ask people what they were reading. And everyone, it seemed, was suddenly reading “Persuasion.”
I’d felt the same pull. In the land of Austen novels, there are the Big Three: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense & Sensibility” and “Emma.” They’re the reliable crowd-pleasers with the name recognition, the volumes of fan fiction, the gazillion movie remakes.
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Against the buoyant energy of those novels, “Persuasion” can be a melancholy 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 snobby family to end their engagement. Eight years later, she’s a regretful spinster with money problems; he’s a successful, rich naval officer. Circumstances throw them back together.
Around the time that others started baking bread and growing green onions, I reread “Persuasion.” And my longtime appreciation for this novel became a deep, abiding enchantment. I listened to the audiobook on long walks, texted quotes to friends, turned plot points over in my head in the shower. (I was so immersed in this novel, I even aspired to make a podcast about “Persuasion.”)
Then, in September 2020, the mystery deepened. “Persuasion” was becoming a movie.
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Except, not this movie. Another movie, produced by Searchlight Pictures and starring Sarah Snook, who plays Shiv Roy in HBO’s “Succession.” Netflix announced its own “Persuasion” adaptation in April 2021, just a few months before the Bedlam theater company staged the play in New York. An adaptation, mind you, that was different from the new theater adaptation put on in London and Oxford earlier this year.
(The Persuasion field has gotten so crowded, Searchlight Pictures has put their production on hold, Snook told Vogue Australia.)
See? This 205-year-old book is suddenly in the zeitgeist. And I wanted to hear some theories on why.
“It is a book about figuring out your priorities,” said Alice Victoria Winslow.
Winslow co-wrote the new Netflix film. She’s loved the book since college, when she took a Jane Austen class and bemoaned that there weren’t more recent and more popular film adaptations. (Her writing partner, Ron Bass, is a screenwriting legend, known for churning out such box-office hits as “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Stepmom.”)
Anne is relatable for modern readers: She’s older, more contemplative and has to choose between priorities: the man she loves, the friend and mentor she values, and the snobby family she feels obligated to care for.
“She’s sort of not preoccupied with the need to get married,” Winslow said. “There’s just a lot going on for her that is external to the marriage-as-aspirational plot line.”
Damianne Scott sees another corollary with our pandemic era: the fatigue of caregivers.
Scott, who teaches English composition at two Cincinnati colleges, is the creator of the Facebook community “Black Girl Loves Jane.” She is also writing her own novel, a modern-day interpretation of — what else? — “Persuasion,” set in a present-day Black megachurch.
Scott points out that Anne is a caregiver. She spends much of the book appeasing her sisters, nursing various family members after grievous injuries, and serving as her family’s de facto house manager and financial planner. Being stuck in those roles sharpens her regret about the alternate life she could have lived as the wife of a naval officer.
“A lot of people, including myself, are in caregiver roles [that] they didn’t choose,” Scott said. “But life and circumstances made them have to be. And so people can relate to Anne in that notion as well.”
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Perhaps the part of “Persuasion” that feels most resonant now is the sheer amount of time that the protagonist is stuck thinking — it’s been almost eight years since she saw Captain Wentworth, and she has spent every day contemplating her other life, wondering if she’s wasting her current one.
“The novel is so obsessed with time,” said Stefanie Markovits, who teaches English literature at Yale. “And to my mind, that’s what is most reflective of the moment that we’re in.”
The pandemic has made us similarly cognizant of time: The feeling that the last two-plus years have gone by so fast, or so slow; the loss of precious moments with the people we love; the need to understand how we’ve grown (or not) since this period of hardship began.
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When — spoiler alert — Anne finally reunites with Wentworth at the end of the novel, there’s “the 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 don’t know. Anne doesn’t know. She doesn’t pretend to know,” she said. “And yet she’s going to try to rescue some kind of meaning from the way in which time did flow.”
“That’s what we’re all looking for now, right?” Markovits added. “We’re looking for silver linings to this experience.”
That real, profound loss may be why the criticism of this new movie and its irreverent, snarkier tone has felt so impassioned.
The Independent called it “vaguely mortifying to watch.” The Guardian declared it “a travesty.”
“I don’t get it,” novelist and essayist Brandon Taylor wrote in a scathing essay about the movie. “It’s like they looked at Persuasion and they were like, let’s turn this into a real love story, but they took out all of the parts that make it a real love story.”
The audience for this movie isn’t averse to radical reinterpretations of Austen novels. This year’s “Fire Island,” a queer, sexed-up and yet delightfully earnest retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” won rave reviews, as did the tart and zippy “Emma” remake of 2020, in which whole bare regency buttocks were revealed to the audience.
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When I asked Winslow about the backlash to the trailer, she was magnanimous.
“I love this book so deeply. And everyone involved in this project loves the book so deeply. We all have a deep and long emotional connection to the material. So nothing was done carelessly,” Winslow said. “And I hope that everyone comes with an open mind … and an understanding that Austen has such a playful spirit.”
After two years of the pandemic, perhaps “Persuasion” fans are not feeling playful. We’re feeling sad and grief-stricken, and tired and taken for granted, clear-eyed about what we’ve 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 has been through. Because we’ve been through it, too.
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