On June 14, Netflix dropped a full-length trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. Immediately many Austenites were irate. Taking to Twitter, many expressed they do not want a different take on protagonist Anne Elliott. There is a fanatical desire among many to remain oh-so-true to Austen’s works.
This is a phenomenon I’ve experienced myself when I introduced my blog post Could she have meant that?! Sexual Innuendos in Jane Austen’s Emma to an Austen fan club on Facebook. It did not go over well. Many were adamant that Austen would never have taken on something as radical as sexuality (or pearl-clutching humour) in her novels. Most insisted they read Austen for the purity of the love stories. To be clear, this is absolutely ok; enjoy the longing between characters and happy endings. While we can by no means think of Austenites as a homogenous group, in some corners there exists a stubborn belief—and a refrain of “not my Austen”—that she wrote in a vacuum. Not politically observant. Not a proto feminist. And heaven forbid she address anything to do with sex.
In contrast, we have seen the public eagerly embrace two seasons of Bridgerton on Netflix—a show that is itself an adaptation from books by Julia Quinn that were published in the early 2000s. The show has made several creative deviations from the source material, the least of them being rearranging which Bridgerton sibling gets married first. In fact, there have been lists made that demonstrate the historical inaccuracies of the show—from Daphne’s white wedding dress to smoking—and yet viewers were in such a frenzy for the second installment this past March, the season surpassed its previous viewership to make it Netflix’s current most-streamed show.
As, I would argue, with Austen, we also get social and political themes in Bridgerton: Eloise quotes Wollstonecraft; Genevieve Delacroix talks of making her own money; Will Mondrich works on upward social mobility. Of course, the most obvious change is that the production has cast actors with many different backgrounds and empowered the adaptation to acknowledge skin colour (instead of being ‘race-blind’).
But there is a difference in the explicitness of sex in the show versus the novels. While Quinn’s novels include sex scenes, they are not as detailed as the screen adaptation. Obviously, sex was happening in Regency England, but the majority of it certainly was not for female pleasure (see: Daphne on the stairs with the Duke) and marital rape was all too common as women were property of their husbands and heirs were expected. Readers and viewers of Bridgerton seem to have no issue with the changes from source material or even blurring of historical facts.
Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel during her lifetime, published posthumously in December 1817. It tells the story of Anne Elliot who rejected an engagement to Captain Wentworth because her family believe him an unworthy match. The novel begins several years later—Anne is still unmarried, and her family is facing financial strain. The Elliots decide to relocate to a cheaper abode in Bath where they run into Captain Wentworth (now a self-made man of means). Predictably, confusion ensues, motives are revealed, and all ends well. It is a story about regret and the hindsight that comes with age, but Austen creates complex characters that can feel those things and still interact wittily and critically with the world around them. Anne may be a wallflower, but all the more reason for Dakota Johnson (who plays the protagonist) to break the fourth wall and have us viewers join in her internal feelings—much like we would in a book, I might add.
So, why then do so many readers maintain that Austen must only be read for romance and adapted literally when Bridgerton, which focuses on the same era, the same broad themes, and the same Regency glamour gets a pass?
I suspect that this dichotomy comes from an engrained cultural belief that classic literature is something ‘untouchable’ and static. We want our Lord of the Rings in three three-hour long installments with all of Tolkien’s details, Shakespeare performed on stage in costumes of doublets and hose, and my god, how many times have you heard (or said—I am guilty of it too) “the book was better than the movie.”
But we cannot ignore the role art plays in inspiring new generations of artists to take classic works and reimagine, remould, and recreate them as more inclusive. My belief is that art stands the test of time because it continues to reflect our lives. The ugliness of people (lookin’ at you Wuthering Heights) or the desire to belong (even when you are the cobbled together creature of Victor Frankenstein)—these feelings transcend time and are repackaged in a steal-like-an-artist way, holding up different facets of a story to the light, considering them with an inquisitive eye, and changing the perspective. This evolution challenges us to consider the story from a different perspective. For example, at the beginning of June Hulu released a film titled Fire Island, marketing it as a queer adaptation of Austen’s arguably most popular novel Pride and Prejudice. With a central cast of Asian actors, the plot swaps out the pianoforte for drunken karaoke. It is not meant for the majority of Austenites to see themselves in Fire Island, because this is a group that, according to a 2008 survey by the Jane Austen Society of North America, is overwhelmingly female and have the average age of 40. While race or sexual orientation were not considered as part of the survey, the ‘typical’ Austenite is English speaking and usually from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand or Ireland.
A part of the Austenite community does not like to recognize that there might be more layers to Austen’s works, and they maintain that the novels must be adapted in a surface by-the-book way. Yet Bridgerton gets a pass even though it blatantly alters the original novels and Regency expectations, likely because it’s not canon. Furthermore, keeping Austen in the romance section means that those interested in the social, political, or historical commentary of the Regency era might skip over her works—artificially limiting the reach of her novels.
But films like Fire Island and, to a lesser degree, Netflix’s Persuasion, do a phenomenal job of introducing old material to new readers, and maybe that is the crux of the issue: quirky, creative, and diverse film or show adaptations of Austen’s work take away the exclusivity of seeing oneself as a Lizzy Bennett. Among Austenites, many continue to scoff at the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and did not warm to the 2020 adaptation of Emma. It seems that 2022’s Persuasion is destined to be shunned by the community of readers with well-worn copies of Austen’s novels. To that I say: who cares?! Persuasion will debut on a streaming platform with more than 220 million paid subscribers worldwide. If it makes classic literature more accessible to new, young, and racialized communities I am here for it. To them I say: Welcome! There is a growing group of us who are eager to talk about these multi-faceted works with you.