I’ve always had a harder time with Persuasion than other Austen novels. Every time I reread it, I get this sense that Anne has been placed in this box by everyone around her, by her society and time, and even by the narrative itself, and she can’t break out.
It frustrated me because I could tell that the Anne Elliot being presented to the other characters and even to me as the reader was not the true Anne Elliot, or not the whole truth. I knew the real Anne was in there, but it was like she stopped trying to break out long before the story actually began. I would get angry at the people around Anne for not caring enough to even notice the box they put her in. But I would also get annoyed at Anne herself for giving up.
I could see the real Anne, even though she didn’t want me to.
Or that’s how I felt, at least. Like Anne had given up trying to be her true self, but she couldn’t help letting bits of her real personality peek through from time to time. It was like a secret we shared, begrudgingly on her part, though I think sometimes she was actually relieved I could see her, that she hadn’t completely lost herself.
People, both fictional and real, who saw Anne as a stoic, silent ghost of a person only saw what Anne wanted them to see. But not me. I could see her wit and her fire.
She even comes close to letting it slip a few times that she has a lot more going on than she lets on. When she is speaking with Admiral Croft about Captain Benwick’s engagement to Louisa Musgrove, she defends Captain Benwick, who has previously been drawn as a parallel or mirror of Anne herself, when Admiral Croft expresses displeasure with Benwick’s menners.
Croft opines, “‘he has not another fault that I know of… for that soft sort of manner does not do him justice.’”
Anne responds, “’Indeed you are mistaken there, sir; I should never augur want of spirit from Captain Benwick’s manners. I thought them particularly pleasing, and I will answer for it, they would generally please.’”
When Croft misconstrues her meaning, exaggerating her estimation of Benwick to a greater height than she intended, Anne has to quickly damp down her sentiments.
Anne was caught. She had only meant to oppose the too common idea of spirit and gentleness being incompatible with each other, not at all to represent Captain Benwick’s manners as the very best that could possibly be; and, after a little hesitation, she was beginning to say, ‘I was not entering into any comparison of the two friends,’ but the Admiral interrupted her…Persuasion, chapter 19
(Anne is always being interrupted, even by the most well-meaning characters like Admiral Croft.)
Anne is gentle, yes, but she herself baulks at the idea that that means she cannot be spirited. The world has told her she isn’t, has in fact attempted to break her spirit so thoroughly that no one can ever see her as anything but the sad girl who appears on the surface of the pages of Persuasion.
But that is not who Anne Elliot really is.
When the trailer for the newest film adaptation of Persuasion was released last month, I expected that there would be Austen literalists up in arms about its use of modern language and music, and its postmodernist adaptive interpretation of the source material. Whenever a new Austen adaptation comes out, there are always people complaining that it’s “not accurate to the book,” as if this notion of “book accuracy” in adaptation is somehow (1) an objective standard and (2) a measure of quality or legitimacy.
I also expected that the new adaptation’s casting of actors of color in several major roles would bring out the thinly-veiled (or in some cases just blatant) racism that such casting still reveals in many cases. While there is much to be said about the experiences of people of color in Jane Austen and period drama fandom and the inclusion that we should all be striving for, I am not qualified to discuss this in-depth. I’ll instead direct you to sources who can and have been: Bianca Hernandez-Knight wrote this incredible, insightful review of the new movie, Jasmine Malik Chua wrote this evergreen piece a few years ago on discussions of race in Austen, and Amanda Rae Prescott’s discourse on Twitter and on her blog are always eye-opening.
But regarding the idea of book accuracy in this new adaptation, the critique that baffled me most when the trailer was first released was that the Anne in the trailer was not at all the Anne in the book. This Anne was funny and spirited and didn’t move through the scenes like a ghost. People claimed they saw no sadness, no melancholy in this Anne, even though those are supposedly her most prominent traits.
Then I remembered that most people didn’t see Anne the way I do. They seemed to think that sadness was all Anne was. That she couldn’t be both sad and funny, both gentle and spirited. Both attempting to hide herself from the world and socially awkward. Because they hadn’t seen the real Anne. She had succeeded in fooling them.
I loved that the Anne in the movie broke the fourth wall, that she talked to me through the camera, because no one around her in her life truly sees her. I was the one who could see her, who actually listened to her. Around other people it was clear she was still maintaining her facade somewhat, but when she spoke to the camera she was fully herself. It made perfect sense to me that this was how this character should be adapted for the screen.
That this is how she finally breaks free.
I don’t think Persuasion (2022) is a perfect film. There were several missed opportunities it could have taken to even further modernize and contextualize the book. There were “period film cliches” that it fell into that were even more annoying for being in a film that did so much to question the period drama status quo.
But I do feel this film has finally given us the Anne I’ve always seen peeking out of the pages when I read the book. She’s not hiding anymore.