The Wrong Sort Of “Persuasion”

Oh, Dear God, noooooooooo. You have to click on the video (mind the volume if you are at work). There are no words…

By most accounts, it is not mostly the actors or their acting that is the issue. They are generally praised. (Dakota Johnson in particular.) The biggest problem is the production: lots of people are underwhelmed – to say the least – by this adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (her final completed novel).

One of my Instagram followers – in Lebanon, demonstrating in a tiny way the global reach of Austen – was really let down and she told me:

[From my Instagram messages, July 22, 2022.]

In case you were also curious about from where the idea for this post originated – it started with an Insta-story I shared.

Easier to read below, that New York Times piece tells us:

[From the New York Times, Friday, July 22, 2022, emailed “Morning Briefing.”]

My underlining (presumably obviously).

Wikipedia has a summation of some other reviews:

Variety’s Peter Debruge found Carrie Cracknell to have “gone and done a strange thing with the book”, by trying to “modernize it, borrowing heavily from Fleabag with its fourth-wall-breaking gimmicks”, while “casting a free-spirited, fully liberated American star, Dakota Johnson, as Anne — all of which strips the novel of its core tension.”[11] Christy Lemire from the Roger Ebert website found Dakota Johnson offering in the film “a taste of her under-appreciated comic timing” though, she claims “it’s impossible to care about whether Anne ends up with Frederick Wentworth because, as played by Cosmo Jarvis, he is so stiff and uncharismatic.”[12] The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage wrote that the “attempt to modernize the classic novel has led to a disaster of anachronistic dialogue and annoyingly wry glances at the camera,”[13] while Vox critic Constance Grady found the film an “absolute disaster.”[14] The Spectator went so far as to proclaim in its review that “everyone involved [with the film] should be in prison.”[15]

That last one there, seems a bit harsh. LOL!

I have no problem with clearly modern re-doings of anything by Jane Austen or similar writers and often quite like them. I remember, for instance, enjoying 2004’s Bride and Prejudice. It took Austen’s tale and transplanted it to the 2000s in India, Britain, and the U.S.

I lose patience with the assertion that those “under-30” cannot follow people from “1800” unless they are jazzed up far more to resemble ourselves: call them “period modernizations” for lack of a better shorthand. I was once under-30 myself and up to my eyeballs then in the history of that time, and I do not recall having had a problem back then with “recognizing” people of that past. Indeed have we also not just seen the musical Hamilton phenomenon – audiences ate up that production which recreated the past in the U.S. of slightly before Austen’s books’ time while doing so in a way that was generally historically accurate WHILE also being “accessible.”

[Hamilton, at The Victoria Palace Theatre, London. Photo by me, 2019.]

Accurate historical recreations are important because encountering how different norms and outlooks were then compared to ours now is absolutely necessary; but in “period modernizations” we often see such differences between the then and the now at best watered down or minimized or even played for laughs. For example, is the unapologetic sexism we see among most men of “1800” – even in large degrees from “progressive” ones – to our minds almost of another dimension? Yes, it is. Which is why it needs to be correctly portrayed today… or we can forget.

That is also why fictionalizing young women in “period costume” behaving far more “independently” and “liberated” than their real-life ancestors were reasonably actually able to undercuts the basis for any story that is rooted in the first place in a then harshly sexist cultural landscape. Such is one reason why attempting to “re-create” that period with “a modern take” drives me nuts. That is also why I consider Bridgerton to be awful. You cannot appropriate something that is archaic and then cherrypick where you choose in the production “cleverly” to “modernize” it, because that blended concoction results in the end only in an ahistorical and even weird result reminiscent often of a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Far worse, doing so is even potentially something of a danger. Many who watch may have little knowledge of the history. And some people do “learn” far more from entertainment than they do/did in school or in university.

[Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com.]

I have spent several decades “in” that era – studying it, teaching it, and writing it (now, as fiction). Yes, men in “1800” of course loved their wives, mothers, and daughters. But most men born in the U.S.A. and in Europe around 1800 were also raised to be – by fathers AND also by mothers – what we would consider flat-out male chauvinists.

While (white) women certainly were not chattel slaves, as women they were just about “owned” by men. They were passed from basically the legal control of a father in their teens into their twenties to that of a husband. Barely seen in law (after all, all laws were written by only men) as more than a glorified minor, most usually with far less education than even poorly educated men, and with few realistic career prospects, a woman who for some reason never married had an even more difficult time in most respects surviving in that world than a married one – which was why a woman marrying well was so important (as we see over and over in Austen).

We in our era like it appears to be wowed by the Georgian and Regency outfits and seek escape from our present in the supposed greater romance of the time. And, yes, there was indeed a much greater sense of decorum, formality, and real restraint in relationships between men and women, which clearly appeals now to many in our “hook up” world – especially to some women. Some others may also revel in the much more clearly defined gender roles than we now see in our world that is seemingly often so “genderless.”

[Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com.]

I detect increasingly, though, that many have forgotten, or have not even been properly taught, how truly unequal men and women in the U.S. and in Europe had been until only the last century, and really until the 1960s. (French women did not even vote until 1944.)

Bombarding young people with ahistorical “period modernizations” of the world of their great-great-great-great-grandparents could well have real public policy consequences in our present – in viewers coming to think it was then not often nearly as bad as it actually was.

For instance, “chaperones” are now something of a running joke about how “uptight” the era was (again, see Bridgerton), but they existed for a reason: unmarried young men and young women in “1800” were kept socially far more separate and were much more supervised when together than today (as we see, again, in Austen’s ACTUAL novels) simply because, uh, well, a young man and a young woman having sex often led to the young woman becoming pregnant. A woman’s inability to control her childbearing had since the dawn of time been the major reason for any “restraint” between the sexes, as well as one of the major reasons women were in “1800” still treated as “second-class citizens” in the U.S. and Europe.

[Photo by JJ Jordan on Pexels.com.]

All that in mind, consider this in recent days. The U.S. House of Representatives just saw 195 members out of 435 vote that access to contraception should not necessarily be legal. That those men voted in the negative was rather predictable given the political party to which they belong; but nearly thirty of those 195 members who voted in the negative were women. One does not even know where to begin in addressing the historical amnesia particularly among the latter. Do those women honestly know how many men still might not want them in Congress merely because they are women and what had to be done by women (and not a few men) in the centuries up to the present in order that they might be there today?

[From Tomorrow The Grace on Kindle for iPhone/IPad. Click to enlarge.]

Women in “1800” were politically powerless, almost entirely legally subservient to men, and without any reliable ways to control their childbearing. (And rape, while of course illegal, was only very rarely punished.) Disturbingly it seems that too many, including some women now in the U.S. government, have little real appreciation of that history.

The poor reviews for this on-screen Persuasion “modernizing” adaptation does at least give us a glimmer of hope and we definitely need it currently. An effort that started to take hold with evidently the best of intentions a few decades ago aiming to show on-screen “empowered” young women of that era appears to have to some degree backfired. Jane Austen could not even publish her novels under her name because a young woman did not write novels. Young people today do NOT need more “period modernizations” stuffed with fanciful “kick-ass heroines” inhabiting “1800,” when what they need to see is far more historical accuracy depicted on screen about what it was really like to be a woman in that era.