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Netflix's Persuasion fails Jane Austen heroine with 'sassy' modernisation

Professor Amanda Vickery explores the recharacterisation of Anne Elliot - and why it detracts from Austen's work.

Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot in Netflix's Persuasion
Nick Wall/Netflix
Published: Wednesday, 6th July 2022 at 4:56 pm
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This viewpoint by Professor Amanda Vickery is originally from Radio Times magazine, on sale now.

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Bridgerton has rebooted the Regency. Revisiting Jane Austen is inevitable, so it was only a matter of time before Netflix did just that. The streaming service’s romcom version of Austen’s last novel Persuasion (1817) hits the screens on 15th July. Fox had its own Persuasion in the works, but cancelled last year when Netflix secured Dakota Johnson to play Anne Elliot.

But then Austen is a bankable brand. She is unique among writers in enjoying high-brow, middle-brow and mass appeal. For Austen’s ardent fans, her novels capture something universal about the human condition, which resonates as easily in 21st-century California as in the polite drawing rooms of the Regency.

However, when the trailer dropped recently, many Janeites were perplexed by the script and characterisation, taking to Twitter to express their dismay. One bemoaned, “By making her sassy, bold and flirty, they sap the story of the heart-wrenching angst and suffering.” They had a point.

Anne is Austen’s saddest heroine. She is also, at 27, the oldest. Dissuaded from marrying an impecunious naval officer, “her bloom had vanished early”... “Faded and thin”, downtrodden, disregarded and painfully dutiful, she is no free-spirited extrovert.

When Anne finally re-encounters Captain Wentworth, the suitor she had rejected seven years earlier, he reports her “altered beyond his knowledge”, and she must helplessly watch him grow enraptured by a neighbour.

Austen was approaching 40 when she wrote Persuasion, already mortally ill and an absolute spinster. In the novel, we inhabit Anne’s regrets, “low spirits” (which we would now call depression) and unrequited love, doomed to go on “loving longest when all hope is gone”. The novel is beloved for its wistfulness and the tantalising possibility of second chances.

Consequently, Austenites are perplexed by the perkiness of the trailer’s tone. But instead of simply clutching their pearls, they have made a more fundamental point – that the recharacterisation is a symptom of a lack of industry trust in the ability of sad, introverted, complicated women to engage an audience’s affection.

Pride and Prejudice is often voted the nation’s favourite novel, but then its heroine Miss Elizabeth Bennet suits modern tastes. Whereas Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park (a new two-part adaptation of which begins on Radio 4 on Sunday without, one hopes, banter) has been a harder sell: her qualities seem drawn from a sermon on ideal femininity.

Do our heroines have to be extrovert and rebellious to be palatable? Why not depressed? Or shy and crushed? In Netflix’s film version, Anne is billed as “an unconforming woman with modern sensibilities”. But why must every heroine be a relatable, modern girl?

We moderns take what we find congenial in Austen and often ignore the rest. Each generation has looked for its own reflection in the novels, admiring and rejecting, as fashion demands. I think the key to Austen’s adaptability is the spareness of her writing; she rarely offers any description of physical appearances, fashions or interiors. In fact, we know the eye colour of just one of her heroines – Emma Woodhouse (“true hazel”).

Consequently, Austen leaves room for the reader’s imagination – we can even conjure the heroes and heroines in our own image, if we like. This freedom allows each generation to see themselves reflected back from her pages. Every adaptation is less about Austen than about us. Inevitably, anything alien about the past is lost in translation.

Amanda Vickery is professor in early modern history at Queen Mary University of London.

Persuasion will be available to stream on Netflix from 15th July 2022. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.

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The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now, featuring an interview with Persuasion star Ben Bailey Smith – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.

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