Why Jane Austen's wallflowers deserve love too

Rosalind Moran 5 July 2022

By overdoing the Fleabag trope, we are missing out on a more interesting variety of characters portrayed by Austen—like Persuasion's wallflower Anne Elliot

Half agony, half hope. These words from the last letter in Jane Austen’s Persuasion—one of literature’s most famous pieces of correspondence—capture not only the spirit of loving in uncertainty, but also the feelings many Austen fans have towards forthcoming film adaptations of the author’s novels.

The upcoming Netflix release of Persuasion (2022) is no exception in the feelings of trepidation it inspires, at least in this Austen appreciator.

Moreover, if one is to judge by appearances (à la a catty Austen side character, if you will), that trepidation may be justified.

Given the popularity of the acclaimed recent period drama adaptations Emma (2020) and Regency-era hit Bridgerton (2020-ongoing), it is not especially surprising that Austen’s Persuasion is being adapted yet again for the screen.

What is striking, however, is the depersonalising transformation of the heroine introduced to viewers in the film’s trailer. Who is this sassy, comedic, wild-haired woman, presenting as a hot mess and clumsy in a supposedly oh-so-relatable way?

Can it be Persuasion’s Anne Elliot? Can it really?

Austen gets the Fleabag treatment

The Anne depicted in the trailer of Persuasion (2022) is active, modern, and dazzling. She speaks confidently and wittily, shooting knowing glances at the camera as she breaks the fourth wall with panache.

Indeed, she is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in spoken demeanour and fits seamlessly within the mould of the contemporary heroine that has come to emblematise women-led storytelling these past few years.

She is hot, funny, messy, desirable, and struggling with love in her late twenties. She finds herself in awkward situations played for laughs—and not present in the book—that encourage the viewer to perceive her as flawed, relatable, and quirky.

There is nothing inherently wrong with women embodying such zeitgeisty qualities onscreen or in reality.

"Its trailer suggests a wilful desire to turn Austen’s female leads into Fleabag-esque wits, regardless of their actual characters"

What is troubling and frustrating about this new adaptation of Persuasion, however, is that its trailer suggests a wilful desire on the part of film executives to turn Austen’s female leads into Fleabag-esque wits and Emma-like central figures, regardless of their actual characters.

At the very least, the adaptation markets its heroine this way. Even if the film is somehow tonally different from its trailer, it pitches its value to audiences based on how much its Austen heroine is, in fact, a familiar, popular, and contemporary creation.

This overhaul of character is problematic on multiple levels. Not only is it untrue to the spirit of the book Persuasion, but it also shows an unwillingness or lack of interest in 2022 towards depicting particular kinds of heroines onscreen—such as Austen’s quieter leads. Her wallflowers.

I would argue that far from being unsuitable to lead or contribute to a good story, Austen’s more passive, less glittery heroines are among her best and most interesting creations.

Austen knew how to write a narratively effective wallflower, producing Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price down the far end of the spectrum and Sense and Sensibility’s Eleanor Dashwood, Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, and Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas in more moderate territory.

Mrs Bates (Emma) and Mary Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) could also be incorporated into this category, and even Jane Fairfax (Emma), for her demeanour if not her appearance. 

What is so special about Austen’s wallflowers?

Dakota Johnson starring in Netflix's Persuasion adaptation Credit: Nick Wall. Persuasion's Anne Elliot is transformed into a modern-day "hot mess" in Netflix's adaptation

Frankly, everything. They are the foils to the dazzling heroines for which Austen is known: the wallflowers in Austen’s novels offer a contrast through which the scene-stealing wits and beauties are checked.

Either the charming heroine, the reader, or both are unsettled and forced by the wallflower’s presence to reassess their understanding of the stories Austen is telling, in particular in relation to less romantic and more grounded socioeconomic themes around finances and class.

In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas’s acceptance of marrying for safety as opposed to love shows the extent to which Elizabeth Bennet behaves riskily or even selfishly by not marrying, thereby complicating Elizabeth’s position as a romantic heroine, at least for the critical reader.

In Sense and Sensibility, Eleanor Dashwood is the pragmatic foil for her highly-strung sister Marianne. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s authenticity reveals the insincerity of Mary Crawford. The accomplishments and humility of Jane Fairfax in Emma throw Emma Woodhouse’s deficiencies into sharp relief.

"Many of Austen’s most thought-provoking characters are passive or reserved in some way"

Even the decidedly ungrounded Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey gains greater definition as a character when cast as the passive counterpart to the manipulative Isabella Thorpe, against whose self-serving nature Catherine’s own morality is juxtaposed.

These wallflower characters are not Austen’s most memorable or beloved. They are sometimes even decried for being passive and supposedly dull, and are consequently overlooked (pour one out for Fanny).

Yet many of Austen’s most thought-provoking characters are passive or reserved in some way, hesitating for reasons that make clear the myriad constraints they and others struggle to navigate in pursuit of a good life.

These characters, and what their presence reveals about those around them, grant Austen’s oeuvre much of the maturity contributing to its timelessness.

Anne Elliot epitomises the Austen wallflower

Dakota Johnson plays Anne Elliott spying out of a window with her sisters in Netlix's PersuasionCredit: Nick Wall. Turning all of Austen's wallflowers into Lizzie Bennetts skips over the socioeconomic commentary that they enable

Persuasion’s heroine inhabits a tale of loss, regret, finances, social mobility, and ageing.

This novel is widely considered Austen’s most mature. Although it retains its author’s trademark humorous flair, it was never intended to be a comedy starring a reincarnation of Elizabeth Bennet.

Persuasion was written by Austen in her final years and is almost unbearably melancholic, being about a woman who has good reason to believe she failed to take the chances available to her in youth, and that no more opportunities will be forthcoming.

By twisting creations like Anne Elliot into the mould of the heroine most popular in our own moment, we don't “fix” these wallflowers and render them more interesting or even feminist.

Rather, we flatten them and strip them of what made them interesting and timeless in the first place.

Indeed, adaptations that can’t conceive of heroines being heroines unless they are entertaining, vivacious, and proactive do a disservice to viewers, homogenising stories as opposed to embracing the richness that can be found in diversity.

"Adaptations that can’t conceive of heroines unless they are entertaining, vivacious, and proactive do a disservice to viewers"

Homogenising Austen’s women specifically also sells short their author’s talent, succeeding only in further enshrining the popular belief that the “Austen heroine” is a uniform figure cut in the endearing yet narrow mould of Elizabeth Bennet.

Surely homogeneity is duller than embracing a wallflower lead from time to time?

It is disheartening to think that those behind Persuasion (2022) looked at their source material and, whether consciously or otherwise, decided that audiences would like a more sparkling heroine or that wit and extroversion are essential qualities of compelling leads.

Invention via adaptation can be innovative, but rewriting a nuanced heroine in a bid to fit contemporary tastes and markets is short-sighted.

Austen’s heroines—and indeed, women—are so much more varied and complex than various emulations of Fleabag characters imply. Modern audiences, and Austen, deserve better.   

Read more: The naughty teenage writings of Jane Austen

Read more: 10 Literary spin-offs you have to read (or watch)

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