History & Film: Jane Austen for a New Generation
WRITTEN BY ELIZABETH CORBETT
When Carrie Cracknell’s film Persuasion premiered on July 15th, 2022, many Jane Austen fans were in an uproar. Among their complaints: it was nothing like the original novel, also called Persuasion, which was published months after Austen’s death. American actress Dakota Johnson stars as Anne Elliot, and her character is practically unrecognizable from the novel’s protagonist. In this version, we are treated to a sassy young woman who tells her side of the story to the screen, effectively breaking the fourth wall. She has a penchant for drinking wine, clowning around, and doing absurd things worthy of Bridget Jones. People bemoaned that this Anne was not at all true to Austen’s creation. Anne from the novel is a quiet and good-natured young woman who rarely speaks out of turn. She sits in stark contrast to her obnoxious family members, who seem to think very little of her. These include her father, the vain Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch; her self-important older sister, Elizabeth; and her irritable younger sister, Mary.
This situation calls to mind the reaction to Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film, Mansfield Park. Viewers used to period dramas, with their gorgeous costumes, encountered an unrecognizable Fanny Price, as portrayed by Frances O’Connor. This Fanny was a self-assured young woman who seemed far more confident than the timid and shy creature from Austen’s 1814 work. Mansfield Park is generally considered the least popular novel amongst Austenites (fans of Jane Austen). After all, it features a Fanny who does the bidding of everyone around her and never quite speaks up for herself. She doesn’t have the sparkling wit of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet or the confidence of Emma Woodhouse from Emma.
Rozema breathed new life into the film, envisioning a strong young woman who felt very modern. As Alison Shea writes: “[I]n the film, Fanny’s empowerment is born not from confidence gained through keen observation and good judgment – Austen’s virtues, acquired and fostered through quiet reflection. Rozema’s heroine has confidence aplenty. Her source of empowerment, rather, appears to be a newly discovered sense of sexual energy and awareness that emerges during the ball, after which her bodices become lower and her powers of flirtation greater.”1 Many Austenites decried the film as being nothing like the original novel. If you ask me, though, it presented a Fanny Price for a new generation. I was young when this film came out, and I positively loved it. It had a main character I could relate to.
If we view Carrie Cracknell’s Persuasion in the same light, we can see similarities. As a girl I subsisted on the 1990s Jane Austen renaissance of films and series, such as the 1995 Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. There has been a resurgence of Jane Austen remakes recently as well.
Let’s also consider Shonda Rhimes’s popular boundary-breaking series, Bridgerton. Based on Julia Quinn’s novels, the show is set at the height of the colorful Regency era, an epoch Austen is often associated with. Bridgerton boasts a diverse cast, stunning costumes, and compelling storytelling. This show is certainly modern in the sense that the costumes aren’t exactly historically accurate, and many of the pieces the characters dance to are instrumental versions of popular music.
What sets the 2022 version of Persuasion apart from its 1971, 1995, and 2007 predecessors is the fact that it is a modern take. It isn’t set in the current era, but there are so many nods to the present that you don’t fully become ensconced in Regency England. While we do have the historical backdrops of the imposing Kellynch Hall and the beautiful Great House of Uppercross, this film doesn’t exactly have the feel of a Jane Austen work. We visit the seaside at Lyme, where we are introduced to the Harvilles and the charming Captain Benwick. We gaze at the gorgeous architectural marvel of Bath that was so often written about by Austen. Yet, still, something feels quite off.
What about the characters? Much like Bridgerton, Persuasion has quite a wonderfully diverse cast. In an interview with IndieWire, Carrie Cracknell explained why color-conscious casting is important: “A conversation that I’ve had with lots of the actors that I’ve worked with over the years is how powerful it can be for a diverse audience to see themselves represented in historic cultural texts and stories, because in some way it sort of broadens the scope of the audience who can feel part of this story or can feel ownership over this story.”2
We have the talented Nikki Amuka-Bird as Lady Russell, a woman of distinction and a good family friend of the Elliots. Richard E. Grant is the preening peacock Sir Walter Elliot, and Yolanda Kettle is the conceited Elizabeth Elliot. Ben Bailey is the common-sensical Charles Musgrove and Mia McKenna-Bruce is the short-tempered Mary Musgrove. Nia Towle and Izuka Hoyle portray Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, the jovial and fun-loving sisters-in-law of Mary. Captain Frederick Wentworth is portrayed by Cosmo Jarvis and his archrival, Mr. William Elliot, is portrayed by the handsome Henry Golding. Finally, the scandalous Penelope Clay is played by Lydia Rose Bewley.
While many of Cracknell’s characters remain true to the novel, her Anne Elliot is perhaps the greatest departure. Anne bares her soul to silent spectators in a world where she is ignored. She confides to us as she walks through her sister Mary’s house: “She’s so wrapped up in her own suffering that, until I clear my throat, she won’t even notice I’m here.” There is even a comical quip about speaking Italian for 24 hours, which her sister never even realizes. Of all the characters, I think that Mary Musgrove’s depiction is the most faithful: she is just as unbearable as her literary counterpart!
This Anne is spirited, fun, and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Deep down, as we see in the opening scenes, she pines for the lost love of Captain Wentworth, after having been persuaded to break off their engagement years earlier. I mean, she’s nursing a bottle of wine. Do you think she’s got a lot of hurt going on? While she is ignored by her close family members, she tells us what she really thinks. Director Carrie Cracknell describes her decision to break the fourth wall this way: “I think it allows this access to complexity of her inner thoughts. It’s a way for us to understand Anne’s interiority. So much of the book is about Anne observing her family and their bizarre behaviors and her frustration at that, and so to be able to just look at the audience and sort of connect over that frustration felt really compelling as a device.” As Patricia Rozema did with Fanny Price, we start to see Cracknell’s Anne Elliot as a strong young woman who refuses to be silenced. After all, those of us who live in the modern age love strong, bold female leads.
Cracknell admits: “I’ve always found the combination of this proto-feminism, of these women trying to make sense of the world that they’re trapped in, but also the romanticism and the kind of utter joy and the warmth of her storytelling, to be a really compelling combination.” If we look at the new Persuasion in this light, we see what she was reaching for.
For the costumes, we have a combination of Regency-era clothing and numerous modern creations. The attire of the background characters looks more historically accurate. Anne Elliot’s clothing is perhaps the most modern. She also wears her long hair down in certain scenes, rather than sporting the usual Regency style with a high bun and corkscrew curls. While some of her dresses look like they would fit the era, others stand out. One dress she wears while in Bath is dark gray with a white chemisette beneath, and she also wears a black beret. She looks like she should be in the Edwardian era, a time when women’s suffrage was a major bone of contention. Women were starting to move into the workplace and forge their own paths independent of their male relatives. I don’t think this was simply Cracknell’s way of modernizing the character but also a way to give Anne the appearance of more agency.
Let’s also take a moment to talk about the language! Persuasion is littered with all kinds of modern slang you wouldn’t expect to encounter in a Jane Austen adaptation. In one scene, Anne and her pompous relatives are sitting around the table with Mr. Shepherd and his daughter, Mrs. Clay. She announces to Sir Walter: “Well, just think, you and Elizabeth. You’ll be thirteens there [Bath].” Elizabeth, the conceited witch that she is, says to her sister: “You’ll be at least six, Anne.” Later in the film, Anne refers to Wentworth as her “ex.” Then there is the instance where Mary calls herself “an empath.” (Oh, the irony!) These words take me out of the moment when I hear them. However, that may be deliberate!
When all is said and done, Carrie Cracknell’s adaptation of Persuasion makes quite a statement. Yes, this film has its critics, but I think many people are missing the point. Not every Jane Austen adaptation has to be 100% faithful to the literature. There is beauty in doing things differently. While Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park was a point of great conflict, it worked as social commentary on women’s empowerment and a British family profiting off the evils of slavery. This Persuasion has its own message to share about strong female leads, color-conscious casting, and modernizing Austen’s writings. Most importantly, Cracknell’s Persuasion introduces Austen to a new generation. More people are learning about Austen and her wonderful works. If these films succeed in doing that, I say bring on the new adaptations!
About the contributor: Elizabeth K. Corbett is an author, book reviewer, and historian who has recently published a short story, “Marie-Thérèse Remembers.” She is currently working on her gothic romance debut novel set in Jacksonian America.
1. Alison Shea, “‘I Am a Wild Beast’: Patricia Rozema’s Forward Fanny.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 28, 2006, p 52.
2. Kate Erbland, ‘Persuasion’ Director Carrie Cracknell Talks That Trailer Response: Fans Have ‘Deep Feeling’ for Austen.” 28 June 2022. IndieWire, https://www.indiewire.com/2022/06/persuasion-carrie-cracknell-responds-jane-austen-fans-1234736852/ Accessed 14 October 2022.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 102 (November 2022)