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David Bouchier: Persuasion

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

Jane Austen wrote about a world that was, psychologically and socially a million miles away from present-day America, in the kind of stately, exact English that nobody speaks or writes any more. She seems an unlikely candidate for media celebrity in the twittering age, more than a hundred years after her death. Yet her works are still enormously popular. Some people have even read the books. But the real boost to her celebrity has come from a flood of movies and TV specials. Austen’s characters and plots have been all over our screens these past few years, with nice costumes, beautiful settings, and lots of soft-focus photography. There have also been pastiches and parodies like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Pride and Prejudice goes to Bollywood. Now there’s yet another Jane Austen pastiche on public television, a confection called Sandtion, with yet more pretty clothes and picturesque landscapes.

I have heard it suggested that some people find romance in Jane Austen's stories. This is a strange notion. Jane Austen certainly believed in romance, but she understood its limitations. Her portrayal of relationships between women and men is as much economic as romantic. Always in the immediate foreground is the question of money — how much she has and, even more important, how much he has. Economically speaking, a good marriage in the early 1800s was like winning the lottery. It was about as romantic as an investment seminar.

More plausible is the hypothesis that the revival of Jane Austen’s elegant fairy tales reflects a yearning not so much for soft-focus romance as for a return to good manners in everyday life. We suffer from a serious deficit of manners these days, because good manners imply civility, consideration for others, and all kinds of desirable qualities that are getting hard to find. The political world at the moment is all about pride and prejudice and money. It certainly would be nice if watching Jane Austen movies brought back the archaic habits of politeness and mutual respect.

Consider, for example, her last novel Persuasion. The heroine Anne Elliot was gently persuaded, and obediently agreed, not to marry the man she loved Captain Wentworth because he had no family or fortune. This was a painful though sensible decision based on a rational argument. How old-fashioned is that? Of course it all ended happily with the rediscovery of their love eight years later, by which time Captain Wentworth had had the good sense to become extremely rich.

My point is not simply that, in affairs of the heart, money conquers all — although that’s a theory worth considering. It is that gentle, rational persuasion based on our best interests can lead to a happy ending. Public radio needs money to survive, just like a Jane Austen heroine. Love alone is not enough. It seems vulgar to talk about it, or even think about it, but sometimes we must. Jane Austen would have understood this perfectly and I’m sure that, with her fine understanding of the delicate balance between love and economics, she would have responded to our gentle persuasion in the most practical possible way.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.