Bring Back Our “Dull” Heroines

Written by Ann Burns

July 26, 2022

When the Villains are Beautiful

If there is one thing I am certain of, it’s that if you want to watch and enjoy Jane Austen adaptations you cannot be a purist.  

While I adore Austen’s books, I thoroughly enjoy watching adaptations even if they get “so much wrong.” Yes, I would argue that the vast majority of major Austen adaptations possess a fatal flaw.  In order to enjoy the films, one has to accept that the many layers of brilliance that make Austen so compelling will in some way be disregarded. 

But the 2022 Persuasion takes it to a whole new level. Granted, there are already innumerable memes and reviews decrying the ills of the movie, yet what left me flummoxed is the question of “why.” 

Why is it so bad? 

The popular joke is that no one making the film actually read the book: it blatantly altered the characters, massacred the dialogue, and ultimately crafted a totally different story — A feisty Anne Elliot, who is secretly a closet drunk? Anne Elliot saying the most gauche things at the dinner table? These are characteristics so polarizing to the sensible and quiet Anne we see in the book.

At first glance, I blamed the Bridgerton series for this ghastly mess.  Bridgerton, while making period romance popular, evokes a very modern aura from its style and dialogue.  The characters are anything but “bland,” as they range from spunky to rakish.  The series is charged with sexual tension and pre-marital relations are… not as odious as they would be in an Austen novel. And I think the spunky modern vibe that imbues this retelling of Persuasion undeniably has a Bridgerton influence. 

Bridgerton is a rom-com. It’s not meant to say anything profound.  

But the bright colors and whimsy that disguise the rather “mommy-porn” style of the story seems to have captured a wide variety of fan girls longing for balls and gowns. Balls and gowns.  Like Jane Austen, right? No.

Austen isn’t writing “rom-coms.”   Simply put, she wrote comedy of manners; she possessed a love for the satirical and used it as a means to illustrate problems with things like the Sentimental novel, the Gothic Novel, and Romanticism.  Some say that her understanding of the intricacies of human nature were so profound she influenced the mystery novel. But at the end of the day, Austen’s work directly opposes the ethos of things like the Bridgerton craze because Austen wasn’t advocating for unbridled emotions and good girls marrying reformed rakes.  She stalwartly wrote against such things. 

To illustrate this point, in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is pursued by the rakish and charming Henry Crawford; he is determined to make her fall in love with him.  Henry is truly besotted with the virtuous heroine,but she is unmoved by superficial charms and resolute in her convictions.  For her, he is the “reformed” rake, but when she rejects him, he immediately falls back into his womanizer ways.  This is not an unusual theme in Austen novels. 

We see the dissolute Wickham fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet and the cunning and vain Mr. Elliot is drawn to Anne in Persuasion; Mr. Willoughbly genuinely adores Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.  Austen constantly writes about “bad boys” falling for good women, with the understanding that goodness — purity — is absolutely attractive.  However, none of these men are in pursuit of actual virtue, and as such, their love for these women is not enough to truly reform them; in turn, they all fall back into vice because their shortcomings are more valuable than the good. 

In many ways, an Austen novel is a cautionary story against “listening to your heart” and failing to process our emotions.

And yet, the primary crime committed in nearly all Jane Austen adaptations is the belief that she writes romances.  She is not writing Romances or romance novels, but social commentaries that utilize the story of a man and woman falling in love as the stage to let everything unfold.  However, when modernity evaluates her books solely through the lens of “boy meets girl” a grave error is almost always made: what Jane Austen set out to satirize is ironically taken seriously.  

Austen’s brilliance isn’t just found in her wit, but that she has earned her rank as both masterful story-teller and brilliant philosopher. 

As Joseph Pearce writes:

“Perhaps the most frequently recurring theme in Austen’s work is a disdain for the irrational tenets of Romanticism, which emphasized emotion and the feelings of the heart over the reasoning of the head. From her earliest juvenile writings, such as Love and Friendship, written in 1790, to her mature novels of more than twenty years later, she lampoons the sort of Romantic novels in which women are depicted as irrational beings, weak-willed and weak-minded. Whereas her own novels contain such women, who commit the folly of following feeling in defiance of the demands of moral responsibility, her heroines attain the fullness of human dignity, subjecting themselves as eminently rational creatures to the goodness of virtue and the objectivity of truth. In this, she has been called an Aristotelian, quite correctly, but she could as easily be described as a Thomist insofar as she accepted and embraced Christian realism in an age of embryonic relativism.”

This is precisely what the modern Persuasion refuses to accept, as the story concludes with Anne stating to love who you will no matter how unconventional it may be.  Essentially, this Anne becomes a paragon of the modern “virtue” you do you, which is very anti-Austen. 

As I reflected on the many ills, I realized that the rejection of moral, sensible Anne seems to be founded on the unfortunate belief that good girls are just too boring. Consider how  Persuasion and Mansfield Park are both victims of cringeworthy adaptations from the cinema because their heroines are too dull. The 1999 Mirimax adaptation of Mansfield Park and 2022 Persuasion made no attempt to hide their completely revised heroines of Fanny Price and Anne Elliot. 

Interestingly, Austen’s Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are her only heroines who are not treated with irony.  All of the other heroines fall prey to serious misjudgements and the ridiculous (Elizabeth misjudges Darcy, Emma is wrong about everything, Catherine is entirely insipid, Elinor is also quite wrong, and so forth and so on).  Yet, Anne and Fanny, by being treated unironically, enhance the irony found throughout the book.  The narrator esteems the virtue and wisdom of both of these women.  They possess a moral center for their books. And their worth is not tethered to charm (in Fanny’s case) or beauty (in Anne’s case), but virtue. 

Anne is bullied and overlooked by her family.  She isn’t snarky, she isn’t sassy.  She is quiet and keeps her emotions hidden.  She is other centered and mature.  Dakota Johnson’s Anne is the exact opposite; she is very much a modern-female-protagonist whose “wisdom” is represented as eye-rolling, petty, and a total disregard for those around her.  It makes absolutely no sense that this Anne, who apparently is “unchanged” from the past, would have ever been persuaded to reject Wentworth. She just doesn’t care enough. 

At the end of the day, we can bemoan the complete injustice of this rendition of Persuasion, but I think in an odd sort of way, it’s the natural evolution of Austen adaptations. 

Jane Austen’s satirical irony is lost on the modern reader who mistakes her books as sole romance novels, and in doing so, takes seriously what Jane believed to be absurd.

Persuasion is Austen’s most mature and serious novel, but the 2022 film is ridiculous at best because it only understands the story as a second-rate rom-com. 

Jane Austen film adaptations will most likely continue to be all kinds of messes.  That doesn’t mean the movies will all be horrendous, but just unfaithful to the actual genuis of the author. Only until we appreciate Austen not just for her ability to write a love story, but also for her timeless wit and wisdom, will we start to see more mature, clever, and spot-on interpretations. 

( But it is delightfully ironic that in an attempt to modernize Anne and make her more spunky and less dull, Netflix only managed to produce a pretty dull film.  🤭)

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