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In defence of the Netflix Persuasion

It is a satire of modern vanities, not a screw-up

Artillery Row On Television The Critics

Must we have adaptations? It seems so. Worse yet, we must discuss them too. Especially the bad ones. The new Netflix adaptation of Persuasion has put the Janeites in a spin. Like Mrs Bennet succumbing to her nerves or Aunt Norris being asked to pay for something, they simply can’t handle it.

To be fair, the adaptation does contain moments of egregious anathema. Not to mention the way they snafu the plot, especially the ending. You don’t need to be a precious little pedant to see that. The question is — does it matter? 

Much of the reaction assumes that anachronism is bad and fidelity is good. If the characters use modern speak — “He’s a ten. I never trust a ten” — this is bad. If they wear historically accurate costumes, this is good. But what do we want from our period dramas? Nice dresses and long shots of stately homes in the morning mist? If so, you might enjoy Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Sure, it’s a distressing and gritty close-up of the family drama involved in a slow and painful death. But the curtains are sumptuous and the lighting is exquisite. 

The fact is, fidelity isn’t enough. It might be necessary but it cannot be sufficient. What we really want is English romance of a very peculiar Janeite sort. We want Colin Firth in a wet shirt but not Downton Abbey. We want Austen’s conservative heroines without her Christian seriousness. We enjoy the comedy of Mrs Bennet but we don’t want our adaptations to push too hard on Austen’s Tory belief in sensible, not just romantic, marriage. All adaptations are a bastardisation of the novels. Indeed, some of the worst Janeites in this tradition are novelists like E.M. Forster. Netflix just took this further than before.

Once we have any adaptation, we must have them all. If you want the glorious BBC Pride and Prejudice you have to let it co-exist with the dismal, droopy 2005 version. Austen’s first biographer, the novelist Elizabeth Jenkins once said, “Reviewers seldom say a more foolish thing than when they describe some ambling tale of domestic relationships as ‘quite in the Jane Austen manner.’” Something similarly reductive happens with adaptations like the 2005 one where all the audience really wants is something soppy to watch, with floaty dresses and romantic music. Austen would be unimpressed with that, and honestly where else did we think that would lead us than to the occasional production like this?

But that is an egregious breach of purism too. Colin Firth in a wet shirt is a major departure from the original scene in Pride and Prejudice. That didn’t stop the shirt itself being put on display at the Austen museum at Chawton. To some purists, that was where the problem started. But you see my point. We might despair at the dialogue being quite so modern in this new version of Persuasion but in Emma Thompson’s version of Sense and Sensibility Margaret says, “You always say it won’t rain and it always does.” Good line. Very Austen. One small snag: Thompson wrote it, not Austen. 

So where do we draw the line? Why is it more acceptable to imitate Austen than to interpose modern idiom anathema to the original? When we (mostly) reenact the original, as in the BBC, adaptations are well received. When the book is taken as inspiration, but reimagined for a modern setting as with Clueless, a riff on Emma, that’s alright too. Somehow, somewhere, Netflix got it wrong by trying to do both.

Mr Eliot is straight out of a modern second-rate rom-com

Their first sin was to interfere with Anne Eliot’s basic character. Austen’s heroine, Anne Eliot, is a mild mannered, Christian woman who suffers in silence. In the words of Elizabeth Jenkins, Austen’s first biographer, Anne is “clear-sighted and sensible” and “her powers of judgement did not take the form of a startling insight into other people’s characters”. Not so for Netflix. Here we have Anne swigging from wine bottles; throwing shade as she talks conspiratorially to the camera; and letting her unfeminine, unChristian and certainly not respectable sass burn anyone who deserves it — or who gets too close. In this version, rather than sitting quietly and suffering, Anne is just so over it. This diminution of Austen’s purpose happens with other characters too. Mr Eliot is straight out of a modern second-rate rom-com. This is the sort of thing made Deborah Ross in the Spectator suggest that everyone involved in this adaptation should be in jail.

For sure, having Anne talk to the camera is very Fleabag, very modern and not, at first glance, very relevant to the novel or the character. If you want a strong female lead, write your own, you could say. Stop mangling Austen. We might also argue, for good measure, that Anne Elliot is a strong female lead. You don’t have to be outspoken to be a role model. You might say that is the whole point of the book. Anne triumphs over everyone else simply by being steadfast, much like Fanny in Mansfield Park

But, and I cannot emphasise this enough, there is a solid basis in the original text for this decision. Marilyn Butler, one of the great Austen scholars of all time, described “the extremely subjective viewpoint of the novel”. Unlike other Austen novels, we are constantly given Anne’s perspective. How better can television achieve the same thing? Anne’s inner life isn’t quite revealed to us in the novel the way it is in this production, but it’s hardly an unthinkable leap. As Jonathan Rothman said in the New Yorker, “down the line, we’ll value Johnson’s cool, knowing performance, which communicates Anne’s self-protective desire to resist hope and romance.” 

The reason we are given Anne’s perspective is to show us the contrast between patient Anne and the vanities of the world. Butler said of Mansfield Park, “Whatever the topic of dialogue, the moral landscape of the various characters is really what receives attention.” Something similar is true of Persuasion but with much more focus on Anne’s subjectivity. This adaptation does a pretty good job of presenting the moral landscape of the characters. 

By using modern dialogue, the adaptation makes contrast between the vanities satirised and disapproved of by Jane Austen and our own vanities today. Sure, it’s a little clumsy, a little hamfisted. It’s what you might expect from a generation of people whose English lessons involved writing letters to the characters in modern dialogue and having everything made relevant and accessible. But they aren’t just screwing up. They’re poking fun at us to make a moral point. Very Austen, no?

When Mary switches suddenly out of hypochondriac self-pity because she wants to go to a dinner party with some fancy people, she discovers her son has injured himself. She refuses to stay with him. The other women admonish her for being selfish and un-motherly. So far, so Austen. Not very modern, not very feminist. 

This production isn’t posh and English and middle-class enough

Mary then says that she struggles to be with her children when they are upset because she feels it so strongly. “I’m an empath.” Who is being satirised here? Is it the adaptation mocking snowflake culture? Is it admonishing mothers with FOMO? Many of the characters are presented with the full measure of vanity, pretension and empty-headed posing that you can find all over social media. That’s a reasonable rendition of Austen’s purpose. There’s more subtlety in this adaptation that we might want to admit to. More fidelity too. The Marys who are still with us today do call themselves empaths without a hint of self-knowledge. Doesn’t it remind you of Mary’s privileged, unworldly superciliousness when people compare watching this adaptation to torture? (Of course, it was the Daily Mail who said that, as one of the perfect embodiments of Mary in modern culture.)

Persuasion is about people who have too much faith in themselves and their own self-direction, and too little self-knowledge. This adaptation mocks current versions of that in our own culture. You might read this as a form of shitposting — a deliberately anachronistic riff on the original designed to make it understandable to some viewers and to piss off many others. Success! What matters is whether the adaptation understands the novel and acts as a reasonably accurate criticism of it. This production is a bit obvious but it gets the basic point. 

It’s not that this adaptation tried to create something faithful and accurate but failed — they set out to make a riff on the original, halfway between Clueless and the BBC P&P. You don’t have to like it to acknowledge that it works. It’s television. What do you expect? Look at The Crown, where it was deemed permissible to have Winston Churchill give an impromptu press-conference at a hospital and promise extra funding to deal with an NHS winter crisis. Compared to that ahistorical bilge, Dakota Johnson is Cassandra Austen incarnate.

Surely a big part of the problem here is that this production isn’t posh and English and middle-class enough. It has the whiff of American millennials about it. It’s not the adaptation our mothers were used to. Get over it. Compared to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters or, worst of all, those versions of the Austen novels where a lot of romance-novel sex-scenes are written in, the new Netflix Persuasion is really quite good. It understands the novel and makes an honest attempt to render it. No, it’s not an ornament for all time. But so what. Austen is. You still have her.

I can’t imagine I have persuaded any Janeites. Austen is a genius, virtually unmatched at what she does. All adaptations are a massive disappointment compared to the works. If you really want to be a purist, you have a very simple option, available at all times, irrespective of what Dakota Johnson is doing.

Are you ready? I’ll only say it once.

Read the book.

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