Tanya Gold

Netflix should've made Jane Austen's Persuasion more Jewish

It is very possible to site Austen in Jewishland, and that is why she has so many Jewish fans

July 21, 2022 12:29

There are no Jews in Jane Austen’s novels. It seems she never met one, but she would have walked down Jewry Street in Winchester, which only has ghosts. Licoricia, a female Jewish moneylender, was murdered there in 1277, but there isn’t a murder in Austen either. There is only one mention of a Jew in all her work: in Northanger Abbey. Mr Allen is called “rich as a Jew” by Mr Thorpe, a character Austen despises.

Even so, it is very possible to site Austen in Jewishland, and that is why she has so many Jewish fans. My late Auntie Dinah – a tiny matron of Norbury – pressed all Austen’s books on me when I was a child, and even took me to Bath, where Austen’s Persuasion is set.

Some characters are universal. Auntie died before I was wise enough to ask her which character in Austen spoke to her so deeply. I wish I knew for sure, but I am certain that Sense and Sensibility is a book about my sister and me. You can guess which one is Elinor, and which Marianne. The dowager Mrs Dashwood could be Jewish. Mrs Palmer could be Jewish. Mrs Bennet could definitely be Jewish.

The famous criticism of Austen is that she is parochial, but that is absurd. I love her for her cadences and her character studies and her (not Jewish, but could be) irony. It is true, the Brontës are less afraid of emotion, being Irish and Cornish, and they wrote gleefully about suicide, manslaughter and attempted murder. I love this too, but it can be exhausting. Jane Eyre is a masterpiece, but it is not ruminative, though there is a randy priest at the end, for comedy.

Now Austen’s legacy is threatened by a new adaptation of Persuasion. There are plenty of bad Austen films already. Her subtlety can make idiots think the bonnets are not ludicrous affectations but the point of it all, and a lot of people are in for the bonnets. It is easy to find a bonnet convention in Bath, posing as an Austen convention, but these people are lying to themselves.

This Persuasion is from Netflix. There is already a perfect 1995 adaptation, with Amanda Root as Anne Elliott. But some things are never enough for some people. I await the remake of Casablanca with trepidation. James Corden as Captain Renault?

We all know the story. Anne Elliott is the daughter of a baronet who is persuaded not to marry Mr Wentworth because he is poor. It’s about the nearness of loss, of the powerlessness and jeopardy of women’s lives. This is alluded to elsewhere in Austen, but she was younger then, and more hopeful. She never asked what would have happened if Lydia hadn’t been found by Darcy, if Bingley hadn’t come back.  It is explicit in Persuasion, though. Anne sags “in perpetual estrangement”. It was her final novel, published posthumously. Her fears and her regrets are real.

In the Netflix retelling, Anne is not a serious, kindly, disappointed woman. She is Fleabag, which is the real source material of this adaptation, with Austen grafted on as an insulting footnote, presumably for the clothes. Anne Elliott wouldn’t drink wine from a bottle. She wouldn’t call her sister a “narcissist” and her sister wouldn’t call herself an “empath”.  No character would say, “it is often said if you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath”. The heroine would not speak to camera. Why would she, when her defining characteristic is isolation? There are other questions too about this adaptation which dog me. Why is there a rabbit? But most of all, who is this for?

If you want to set Persuasion in a different century, or a different country, you can do that. You should. This version was so bad — and boring too, which is extraordinary for a book of such jeopardy — I took to fantasising about which Austen books could plausibly be set in Jewishland.

I can imagine Pride and Prejudice in Charedi Brooklyn, and working perfectly: a story about maternal anxiety. Or Emma in Hampstead Garden Suburb, a story about vanity. Or Mansfield Park in Manchester, a story about martyrdom; or Northanger Abbey (maybe not Abbey) in Tel Aviv, a story of female credulousness and lust.  These are universal female stories, but Netflix’s Persuasion is not. If only they’d set it in Radlett yesterday.

It’s heartbreaking because this is the only novel where Austen divined the female condition so clearly.  “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” Anne says to herself. “Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands”.

I think now that is what Auntie Dinah thought, and so she passed the books into my hands.

July 21, 2022 12:29

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