Two hundred years after the publication of Jane Austen’s final completed novel, Persuasion, it is still being read. This is impressive, but what is striking about Austen’s continued popularity is the fact that this reading, or consumption, of Austen isn’t taking place solely behind the walls of institutions or classrooms. Austen has created frenzy with film adaptations, adaptations of those adaptations, themed vacations, high-tech wax figures, costume balls, new editions of novels, video games, merchandise, action figures, and even gin. This begs the question: why do we still read Austen? This broad exploration can be broken down by looking at Austen’s work, and the contemporary presentation of this work, as affecting the consumer/reader “from head to toe.” Austen appeals to the senses and the soul, to consumer culture and the human experience. The various modes through which Austen’s writing and characters have been continually reimagined, through adaptation and merchandising, allow readers and viewers to analyze, see, feel, purchase, and walk with Austen and her characters. Reader (or viewers, or consumers) continue to engage with Austen because they are given new material to approach. What keeps Austen fans coming back is that the stories she tells relate to universal human experience making them still relevant and relatable.
Matters of the mind are of importance to Austen. The theme comes up metaphorically when Louisa Musgrove falls at the Cobb in Persuasion, and it is her head that is affected. Persuasion itself is a matter of the mind, and Austen’s emphasis on the power of persuasion highlights how her work can act as a guide to universal problems of human society. In the eighteenth century and now, people act based on their social environments, peers, and parents. This pressure is part of living in a community. In the novel, Sir Walter feels compelled to uphold his social status, Mr. Elliot aims to be successful, and Anne feels pressure to get married. But the message that Austen sends, for those reading her pages with hopes of picking up life advice, is that one must balance matters of the heart with logic; one must have sense and sensibility.
The major plot point in Persuasion is that Anne was once to be married to Wentworth, but was convinced otherwise at the advice of her older family friend Lady Russell, and eight years later Anne is in emotional pain from this missed chance. It would be understandable if Anne were to get angry with Lady Russell and scorn her for ruining what would have been a happy and fruitful marriage. However, Austen does not make this choice. Anne says to Wentworth, “I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now” (Austen 174). Earlier, Anne defends Lady Russell in asserting that her influence was, “persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not risk” (Austen 173). Here, Austen is showing her preference for sense combined with sensibility. While it would have been romantic to have Anne fall apart and wallow in her sorrows of the past, she instead allows the Anne of the past to have made a wise decision. In the eighteenth century, a woman’s dependency on her husband indeed made marrying Wentworth, while his career was still uncertain, a risky move. In turn, this makes Anne a strong character and brings Austen out of the conventional narrative of love stories where characters drop everything for romance. Anne’s resistance to regret her decision shows that she has a firmness of character and trust in herself, qualities that Austen clearly admired.
We read Austen because she has sage advice, but with modern technology, we can now see Austen’s world as well. Our reading of Austen is reinforced by cultural multiplication through visual forms like film adaptations. Persuasion itself has been adapted into multiple films, including Roger Michell’s 1995 version, Adrian Shergold’s 2007 version, and the 1971 BBC series. On a surface level, these adaptations reinforce the consumption of Austen because they bring characters to life. While this has the ability to add to our understanding of characters, possibly by emphasizing a detail that we may have missed, it can also construct an inaccurate portrayal of the character. For example, Michell’s adaptation shows Elizabeth and Sir Walter frequently eating sugary foods to underline that they are concerned with material wealth and what others think of them. However, the cover of the same adaptation showcases a kiss between Anne and Wentworth that not only doesn’t occur in the novel, but when it does occur in the film it is not in the secluded garden depicted in the image. If we are concerned with understanding Austen’s text, this is not helpful since such a kiss would be scandalous in the eighteenth century and out of character for Anne and Wentworth. However, if we are looking to film adaptions to fill in an emotional atmosphere that was left of out the text, then this is effective.
Persuasion, 1995. Directed by Roger Michell. Produced by BBC. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/52/32/f7/5232f7850d3fbe4…
Take, for example, the phenomenon of Colin Firth in the Pride and Prejudice adaptation. While it is true that “sex sells,” the inclusion of such a steamy scene may relate to the fact that this is what Austen’s modern reader’s want; they want the sexual tension and romance that doesn’t exist (so viscerally) on the page. In her Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon writes of the appeal of adaptations as adaptations, “Part of this pleasure, I want to argue, comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (Hutcheon 4). Consumers come back again and again to Austen because the characters are ones who they care about, ones who they relate to on matters of the head and heart. Adaptations allow readers to re-experience the characters they love, while still feeling loyal to the creative work of the author (that is, not jumping directly into fan fiction). In the film adaptations of Austen’s work, there is satisfaction in getting what we didn’t in the text, more of what we did get in the text, and also knowing that our favorite texts never have to end.
Romero, Vanessa. "My World Between Books." http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-9rnELZ6VeMY/VLkalNqqD_I/AAAAAAAAOy0/Pz6W2KjMM…
While infidelity to the text may be frustrating to a text-faithful Janeite, the adaptations of Persuasion and other novels still hold value in their ability to deepen our understanding of Austen and connect to a larger audience. Hutcheon draws attention to the fact that adaptations must be approachable to knowing and unknowing audiences, or those who have and haven’t read the original text. According to Hutcheon, while a knowing audience may not like the adaptation because of infidelity, “for unknowing audiences, adaptations have a way of upending sacrosanct elements like priority and originality” (Hutcheon 122). While the director has the challenge of explaining the narrative visually and audibly to an unknowing audience, they also have a greater likelihood of pleasing someone interacting with Persuasion for the first since they won’t be caught up on whether the adaptation is “right” or “wrong.” This doesn’t mean that the knowing audience is completely left out or only serves as a critic of the adaptation; they too have something to gain. A knowing audience may pick up on themes present in the novel that they didn’t initially pick up on. In The Lakehouse (2006), a loose adaptation, the main character is discussing Persuasion and says that the novel is about waiting. For a knowing audience who only thought the novel was about the power of persuasion, or changing social norms, this palimpsest leads to a more complex understanding of the original text. Film adaptations, then, bring us deeper into the novel if we have already read it, but if we haven’t they bring us to the narrative in the first place. Because a film does not require the same academic experience as a deep reading of a text, it is consumable by a larger and more diverse audience, making Austen fair game for more people while simultaneously continuing and enlarging the cultural phenomena of her work.
Just as you don’t need to have read Persuasion to understand film adaptations of it, the material consumer of Austen doesn’t have to have read the text either. Returning to the example of Colin Firth, the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, U.K. boasts a wide array of Colin Firth as Darcy memorabilia in the gift shop, not to mention the painted portrait of Firth in the Regency Tea Room. What is striking here is that the adaptation becomes the source “text” for a material object that interprets a character rather than the novel itself. Of course, this relates back to the desire to visualize characters, which was discussed in terms of film adaptations, but objects like this painting take seeing to possession. Austen is for reading, and watching, and she is also for sale. While the consumption of Austen through material objects reinforces a “reading” of Austen, and quite possibly the purchase of her novels, these objects do not necessarily add to a greater understanding of the author or her novels. Seeing Colin Firth performing as Mr. Darcy, or the aforementioned performance of Phoebe Nicholls as Elizabeth, adds dimension to the character. In the films, we see and gain understanding, but in the painting of Colin Firth, or the mug with the painting printed on it (the layers never seem to end), we possess Firth with no understanding of Austen’s Darcy.
Mug sold at the Jane Austen Centre gift shop. https://www.janeausten.co.uk/product/mr-darcy-picture-and-quote-mug/
Where these objects fail in our understanding of Austen and her novels, is that they don’t prompt a deeper reflection of the themes and characters of the novels, or a sense of who Austen was. While buying a new edition of Persuasion, or purchasing a film adaptation, or even a board game, has a potential for understanding since these objects are based in the text of the novel, a mug with the Penguin cover of Persuasion doesn’t tell us anything. But a mug is harmless; it doesn’t tell us anything about Austen or her novel, but it also doesn’t hinder our interpretation. There seems to be a spectrum of material objects for purchase, where those closer to the text or Austen reside on one side, the “deep understanding” side, objects like mugs and jewelry are in the innocent middle, and on the other side are objects like Bath Gin and quotes taken out of context. Bath Gin features an image of Austen winking on a bottle of alcohol. This can hinder our understanding of Austen because it has the potential to portray her as promiscuous. However, we can just as easily take this as humor. The more harmful objects are those that reproduce quotes out of context. Since Austen often worked in the realm of satire or sarcasm, taking a straight quote without the whole section of text risks misinterpretation. For example, one gift shop in England had an object for sale that had the Mansfield Park quote, “A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of,” printed on it. Taken at face value, without the full understanding of the text, this out of context quote could lead someone to believe that Austen is shallow. What the material objects on the “gin” side of the spectrum, and those in the middle, lack is an entry point into Austen. Someone might watch a movie without a huge interest in Persuasion, and then come to adore Austen, but only those who already love Austen (or Colin Firth as Darcy) will buy a mug. There are negatives in the consumer culture surrounding Austen, but at a basic level Austen is purchased because she is loved. The vast quantity and wide array of object for sale are available because there is a market already established.
Possessing an object with Austen’s face on it does not add to our understanding of Austen, yet with immersive adaptations we still have an outlet to physically engage with Austen. Since the places that Austen wrote about, such as Bath, the Victory, and Lyme Regis in the context of Persuasion, are still around, we continue to consume Austen because we can walk where her characters walked. While the gift shop at the Jane Austen Centre may serve as a less valuable interaction, just walking around the city of Bath, which has been maintained as a heritage city, is a means of immersive adaptation. Like watching a film, we gain knowledge of the novels by seeing the places that Austen talked about. Immersive adaptation even has the potential to be more satisfying to a text-faithful Janeite than a film adaptation because it hasn’t gone through the filter of the director. In Shergold’s 2007 adaptation, filmed in Bath, Anne is shown running around the city looking for Wentworth. If a viewer had actually been to Bath, they would find this scene confusing because the building that is said to be Camden Place is actually the Royal Crescent, and the distance between the locations that Anne is running to would actually prove a quite rigorous workout seeing that they are far from each other. If a reader of Austen were to go to Bath, they could gain an understanding of Persuasion based not on how Shergold perceived it, but closer to how Austen herself intended it to be understood. Hutcheon writes, “From early childhood onward, as I can testify from experience, girls create imaginative worlds, complete with their own history, geography, people, and rules of behavior, and they inhabit these imaginatively” (Hutcheon 116). Through her novels Austen has done the work of creating imaginative worlds, and by setting them in real places she provided an opportunity for her readers to imaginatively inhabit these worlds, even 200 years later.
"Important Places in Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen's Life--Map ." The Republic of Pemberley. http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/ppjalmap.html
Austen is read and consumed because there is more and more to consume, but also because she continues to relate to our modern lives. As new material is produced, readers are able to look at the original text in more complex and varied ways, drawing connections to their own lives. 200 years after the original publication of Persuasion, the novel is more popular because a more diverse audience is able to interact with the narrative with multiple senses. Austen can be read, used as a guide, watched, criticized, purchased, possessed, and walked with. Austen is still read 200 years later because her core messages, of balancing the head and the heart, are relevant to the universal human experience, but also because of the cultural work that has been done to keep the message approachable and attainable. From film adaptations to simplified children’s versions of novels, the technology and creative potential of the twenty first century has made sure that Austen and her novels have grown with the times.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, 2nd ed., Norton Critical Edition, 2013. Print.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptaion. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2013. Print.