‘Persuasion’: Why Jane Austen’s most understated novel, soon to be on Netflix, is worth (re)reading

Persuasion will be launched on Netflix on July 15 and its trailer was released recently, sparking interest in Jane Austen’s last completed novel, published over 200 years ago. The film, starring Dakota Johnson in the lead role is an addition to the streaming platform’s collection of the on-screen adaptations of Austen’s greatest works: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.

But before diving into a weekend of Regency-era binge-watching, is Persuasion worth a (re)read?

Anne Elliot, an unlikely Austen heroine

While Persuasion has had a devoted fanbase, its quiet, unassuming heroine Anne Elliot has often been overshadowed by the wildly popular Elizabeth Bennett (of Pride and Prejudice), the brash-yet-charming Emma Woodhouse (of Emma), and the Dashwood sisters (of Sense and Sensibility) with all their travails.

Even for the most ardent Austen reader, Persuasion can come as a surprise, lacking in the razor-sharp repartee and searing wit that makes the author a delight to read normally. Anne Elliot too, is an unlikely protagonist. Well-behaved, polite and proper, she is neither headstrong like Elizabeth Bennett, nor mischievous and self-assured like Emma.

On the sidelines of the crowded Austen-verse, Anne holds an unremarkable position at home too. At twenty-eight years of age, she is also far older than most of Austen’s heroines, and dangerously close to being, gasp, a spinster.

Anne has few prospects, having broken off her engagement nearly nine years earlier with Frederick Wentworth, a man she was told had no future to offer her. Following financial troubles and family entanglements, Wentworth, now a well-regarded naval captain, comes back into her life. Anne and Wentworth now meet again as changed, mature individuals with old wounds and lingering feelings.

Instead of dances, matchmaking, and the courtships of the Bennett sisters, Persuasion strikes a contemplative note. Austen explores the emotional depths of her gentle heroine, the painful separation of Anne and Wentworth, and their terse interactions after being thrust into the same social circle again.

Posters of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Emma’, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Credit: Netflix.com and EMMA. @emmamovie, via Twitter.

Precursor of modern romantic comedy

Writing Persuasion at the age of 41, Austen is at her most mature as a writer. She details Anne and Wentworth’s When-Harry-Met-Sally-like encounters with intensity – from their strained acknowledgment of each other and guarded exchanges to quiet glances with deep undercurrents. Much is left unsaid between the two, but their longing for each other seeps through the pages of the novel.

Persuasion, then, tells an Austen tale most unlike the made-for-each-other Lizzy Bennett and swoon-worthy Mr Darcy, or the antics of Emma. Anne and Wentworth’s bittersweet saga is about difficult choices, regret, and acceptance.

Their (spoiler, but you knew that) reunion – involving but a letter and a deep gaze – is Austen unknowingly setting a precedent for the modern romantic comedy ending. She writes it perfectly, capturing the sentiment of the entire novel in Wentworth’s letter to Anne: “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.”

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Captain Wentworth places his letter in front of Anne Elliot | Image credit: C. E. Brock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Social critique

Since Austen was unmarried, like Anne – unthinkable back then – it is often wondered how much of her own reflections as a woman found voice in Persuasion’s heroine. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice has been quoted to death for its feminist leanings, but in Persuasion, Austen slips in a passionate case made by Anne for women’s resilience in love – almost sending a message to Wentworth who was standing within earshot.

“All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.”

Anne’s exposition, on lasting love, women’s dependence on marriage, and their exclusion echoes early liberal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published around the same time. Significantly, Wentworth’s letter follows Anne’s stirring speech.

Layered within Persuasion’s story is also Austen’s critique of class and property relations that made even Wentworth unworthy of the “daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet”. Here, Austen wields her sarcastic wit again in mocking Anne’s vain, class-obsessed father and her arrogant and proud elder sister. In reuniting with Wentworth, Anne, too, charts a subversive trajectory as she transcends these barriers and comes into her own as a woman.

Austen did not live long enough to see Persuasion getting published – it came out six months after she died. But one can only wonder if she knew that she left behind her greatest, most understated novel ever.

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Image credits: Thalluri Divya Aslesha

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