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Is ‘Persuasion’ the Jane Austen story we all need right now?

How relevant is the work of Jane Austen to a society making its way through a pandemic – and a racial reckoning?

By Janet Saidi, Correspondent | September 17, 2021

Last February, during the long winter of the pandemic and almost a year into lockdown, struggling through endlessly quiet hours and freezing temperatures, I turned to Jane Austen. The plan was simply to reread her six major novels. But that simple plan unlocked for me not only new conversations about these iconic novels but also an entire network of readers and thinkers.

As it turns out, Austen’s Regency world is not a bad place to escape to in a time of crisis. Because under all the romance plots and bucolic country walks, characters like Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” are not only dancing in halls and drinking tea; they’re also bearing up after insults and injury brought on by class, gender, displacement, and loss.

No Austen hero exemplifies this quiet endurance more than the pining and persevering Anne Elliot from “Persuasion.”

This most soulful of Austen’s stories is reigniting. Two film adaptations are due next year – one from Netflix and MRC Film starring Dakota Johnson and another from Searchlight Pictures starring Sarah Snook. And an off-Broadway adaptation from Bedlam theater company, currently in previews, is scheduled to run through the end of October.

Austen’s last full novel, “Persuasion,” published months after her death, is steeped in longing (or pining, as romance aficionados call it), as the two protagonists – Anne and Capt. Frederick Wentworth – have been driven apart but still inhabit each other’s dreams. Because of the radical interiority of Austen’s writing, known to critics as her method of “free indirect discourse,” readers intimately live and breathe and pine – and ultimately survive – alongside Anne.

“Anne has been my imaginary friend for more than half my life,” says Sarah Rose Kearns, the playwright behind the Bedlam production, who first read the novel as a middle schooler and has communed with Anne ever since. Ms. Kearns says Anne handles her anxiety and depression gracefully, but Austen’s literary technique lends emotional depth.

Compared with “Pride and Prejudice,” “Persuasion” is “so much less suspicious of emotion. ... But this one is certainly a celebration of romantic love in the end, right?” says Ms. Kearns.

Indeed. “I call it an adult fairy tale,” says Damianne Scott, an adjunct English instructor at the University of Cincinnati’s Blue Ash College who lectures on Austen in the classroom and in the Austen community. She says “Persuasion” is her favorite because the story is about a young woman taking on family responsibility, which she can relate to. And it’s also about second chances, which we all can relate to.

As the organizer of the Facebook page Black Girl Loves Jane, Ms. Scott says since encountering the novel in high school, she has strongly related to Anne’s graceful navigation of financial and familial quagmires.

Ms. Scott says she also appreciates contemporary adaptations and retellings of other Austen novels like Ibi Zoboi’s “Pride,” which sets “Pride and Prejudice“ within a Brooklyn multiracial family, and “Unmarriageable,” by Soniah Kamal, which puts the story in Pakistan. These retellings reinforce for her that Austen’s world is her world, she says, even if people who look like her aren’t always well represented in Austen discussions or in film adaptations.

“These are my people,” she says. “Even if ... I’m reading it in 2021, these are my people. This is what’s going on in my life in my world, too. And she’s speaking to me.”

Back in those long winter nights after a year of lockdown, the pandemic wasn’t the only significant thing going on. The murder of George Floyd and the racial uprisings that followed inspired a reckoning about white supremacy and racial inequities at every level of society, and this reflection was also taking place in the conversations I was finding about Austen.

Ms. Scott and scholars like historian Gretchen Gerzina and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor Danielle Christmas, who co-hosted the Jane Austen & Co. series “Race and the Regency,” spoke to pandemic-era Zoom rooms attended by hundreds of Austen readers gathered across cultures and continents. Working from home with a makeshift audio production studio at hand, I soon found myself launching a podcast and exploring, with some of the scholars and fans I’ve included here, questions about what Austen’s stories offer for the times we’re in.

One subject we often came back to: “Bridgerton.” When the show debuted on Netflix at the end of 2020, it changed everything we thought we appreciated about Regency stories. The racy series brought the gift of escapism, and with its color-conscious casting (a departure from the books on which it is based), it challenged and boldly revisioned that Regency world, putting Black citizens within and at the top of the aristocracy.

“I actually think it does really important work,” Dr. Christmas told me during our podcast taping about bingeing “Bridgerton.” “There are dozens of future Jane Austen adaptations to come, because we love them, right? ... And I actually think that ‘Bridgerton’ is insisting that the next time there’s a production, if they decide to insist on a certain kind of casting, they’re being deliberate and intentional about that.”

It’s a view shared by an increasing number of Austen scholars and fans, including those writing adaptations themselves like Ms. Kearns and Ms. Scott. The Bedlam production includes a diverse cast, and Ms. Kearns, who serves on the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee for the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), says this is right on many levels.

“One thing that I am mindful of when I think about casting and British period pieces,” she says, “is that Britain in Jane Austen’s lifetime was a lot more diverse than it appears to be in many of the film versions.”

Scholars like Dr. Gerzina and David Olusoga in the United Kingdom are unearthing the stories of Black British lives in the 18th and 19th centuries, providing fans of “Bridgerton” and Austen a place to go for historical context.

Ms. Scott says she’s excited about the Netflix “Persuasion” production deploying what she calls “nontraditional casting,” including “Crazy Rich Asians” heartthrob Henry Golding as Anne’s cousin, William Elliot. However, she says she’s encountered resistance to a piece she wrote for JASNA on the “pineapple emoji craze” and the PBS series “Sanditon.” When Black viewers called for “Sanditon” fans to stop using a pineapple emoji to symbolize the fandom – explaining that it unhelpfully symbolizes both reverence toward and trivialization of colonialism and the slave trade – a debate broke out, and Ms. Scott weighed in.

Now, Ms. Scott is writing her own “Persuasion” retelling: Her novel “Persuaded,” due from Meryton Press next year, sets the story of Anne Elliot in a contemporary Black megachurch. Like Austen’s Sir Walter, Anne’s father, Ms. Scott’s megachurch pastor is weak on financial planning and strong on superficial appearances.

Meanwhile, Ms. Scott says she supports the Austen fandom celebrating films, romance, and Regency dresses. “I’m all for you learning how to make a bonnet. I want to make a bonnet, too,” she says. But the problem comes when we make Austen transcendent, placing her outside the world she herself lived in.

“We make her so unreachable,” she says. “The one thing about my generation – Generation X, Y, even millennials – is we’re not looking for people to put on pedestals. We want people to be among the people. And Austen is among the people, if you let her be.”

Janet Saidi is a journalist who’s assigned herself the Jane Austen beat. When not working on her podcast and newsletter, The Austen Connection, she is producing at NPR-affiliate KBIA radio and lecturing at the Missouri School of Journalism.

© The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

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