Five Variations of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Persuasion, by Jane Austen, revolves around Anne Elliot, the only sensible living member of the Elliots of Kellynch Hall, a family struggling to finance their exorbitant lifestyle in 19th Century England. Anne’s evolution from a persuadable, cautious youth to a mature romantic has inspired scores of modern retellings, five of which I discuss here.

In these reimagined versions of Persuasion, each modern author highlights some aspects of Austen’s original while omitting others. It’s risky to deviate from a beloved classic. What do you keep? Why? What new elements do you introduce? No retelling can ever live up to the original, but, hopefully, it will remind readers of what they love about the original while introducing them to something new and worth reading for its own merits.

These are the Persuasion adaptations I read this month (listed in chronological order by year of publication):

In this modern tale, Anne Elliot is Annie Markham, the daughter of a rude and egotistical businessman who desperately needs a management consultant to stay afloat. That consultant turns out to be Annie’s ex-boyfriend, Jake Mead. Their relationship broke apart so viciously that I almost didn’t want them to get back together, but the pair manages to overcome their differences and live happily ever after.

This modern adaptation of Persuasion stars Anna Elliot, a professor in England who broke Rick Wentworth’s heart when she pursued a degree in Russian at Oxford instead of running off with him. I’ll be honest that I would’ve made the same choice as Anna―call me a “hopeless academic” 😉 ―but I was definitely rooting for Anna and Rick the second time around.

In this post-apocalyptic retelling Persuasion, Anne Elliot is Elliot North, the daughter of a wasteful “Luddite.” The Luddites own the estates on which the “Posts” and the “Reduced” live and work as servants. Elliot falls in love with Kai, a “Post” servant, but their young relationship is doomed. Years later, Kai returns with a new name, Captain Malakai Wentforth, and a new purpose: challenging the social order. This novel borrows heavily from Persuasion, but its setting and additional themes make it a refreshing homage to Austen’s classic novel.

Set in Old Lyme, Connecticut, this modern adaptation of Persuasion emphasizes the romantic elements of Austen’s original―focusing on Hanna Elliot and Derick Wentworth’s second chance at love―while downplaying other themes of Austen’s work, such as the Elliot family’s tenuous financial circumstances. In fact, Hanna isn’t even related to the Sir Walter-based character in this retelling, and she has only one sister, Mary. Overall, it’s a clean romance that lovers of Austen’s original tale are likely to enjoy.

While I was on the subject of Persuasion retellings, I decided to read my own adaptation for the first time since I published it in 2015. Enough time has passed since I wrote it that it actually felt somewhat new (and I no longer felt the urge to edit it!). This story takes place in my hometown just outside of Philadelphia, where the Elkins family lives on a crumbling 34-acre estate (based on a real place). After the matriarch dies under suspicious circumstances, the family turns to the civil court system to seek justice for her death. Their lawyer is Amelia’s ex, a man with no intention of rekindling his romance with the woman who broke his heart, especially if doing so could amount to an ethical violation. After all, lawyers aren’t supposed to date their clients.

~

You’d think reading a series of novels, back-to-back, all based on the same classic source would get “old” eventually, but I guess I haven’t hit my limit of Persuasion spin-offs yet. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thanks!

*I wrote this post as part of Austen in August, a reading event hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader. Check out the master post for more information.

 

Childfree Aunts, Irish Americans, & The Last Little Blue Envelope

Ginny Blackstone has horrific taste in men.

She’s the 18-year-old main character of the Little Blue Envelope series by Maureen Johnson. I wonder if I would’ve felt differently about her taste if I’d read this set of novels when I was closer to Ginny’s age. My taste in partners isn’t much different today, though. I’m married to the person I started dating a week after I turned 19.

Anyway, apart from an unwelcome cameo in the first book, I enjoyed this mildly entertaining set of novels about a recently deceased aunt who leads her niece on a European adventure through a series of letters. It was a nice summer read that doesn’t fire up too many brain cells (in other words, it’s a vacation). That said, it did get me thinking about two articles I read earlier this year:

  1. Honoring the Childfree Auntie (Ms. blog)

The nicest part about the Little Blue Envelope series is that it features a close relationship between an aunt and her niece, a relationship I rarely come across in fiction, but one that my children are lucky enough to have in real life with my sisters (one who has a child of her own and one who doesn’t). Research shows that my children are among many who benefit from these types of relationships:

A survey of 1,000 non-mothers inspired by Savvy Auntie Melanie Notkin found that children play an active role in the lives of 80 percent of women who don’t have children of their own. Another study found that it’s common for aunts to spend money on the children in their lives and assist kids’ parents financially.

For more information, see the link in the heading. These women certainly deserve our gratitude. [Thanks, sisters! Love you.]

  1. The Fading of the Green: Fewer Americans Identify as Irish (Pew Research Center)

In the second book in the series, The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of Ginny’s poor romantic options cannot believe she doesn’t know what a bodhrán is, insisting, “Come on. You knew that. You’re Irish. All Americans are Irish.”

Obviously, all Americans are not of Irish descent, and I’m sure this character knows that. He’s just being annoying, as is his way. However, his statement reminded me of a Pew study that shows that the percentage of Americans who trace their ancestry to Ireland is slowly declining.

I look South Asian, thanks to my Sri Lankan mom, but I have Irish ancestry on my Dad’s side. That’s how my daughters have red hair, just like Anusha, the star of our Anne of Green Gables-inspired novel, Anusha of Prospect Corner.

An Unwelcome Cameo in My Comfort Reading

I picked up Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes, a young adult novel published in 2005, because it looked like a relatively light read at a time when I want my reading to counter the overwhelming sense of doom I feel every time I think about reality. 2017 blows, a virtually ubiquitous feeling the publishing industry is trying to capitalize off of by churning out “Up Lit.” According to The Guardian:

In contrast with the “grip lit” thrillers that were the market leaders until recently, more and more bookbuyers are seeking out novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood. And an appetite for everyday heroism, human connection and love – rather than romance – is expected to be keeping booksellers and publishers uplifted, too.

Johnson’s novel isn’t a new publication, but I’d say it’s the kind of upbeat read many of us are looking for these days. It takes grim circumstances, the recent death of 17-year-old Ginny Blackstone’s aunt, and turns it into a mildly entertaining story that takes our main character from the United States to several European countries.

The novel starts with a letter to Ginny from her Aunt Peg, asking to play one final game, a scavenger hunt. So far, so good.

However, a few pages later, in a section about Aunt Peg’s background, this happens:

[Aunt Peg] answered phones as a temp at Trump headquarters until she happened to take a call from Donald himself. She thought it was one of her actor friends pretending to be Donald Trump–so she immediately launched into a tirade on ‘scumbag capitalists with bad toupees.’

I read fiction to escape from this man. What the hell is he doing in this book? I don’t want to see any references to him, not even negative ones, in my comfort reading.

But I continued to read the book, doing by my best to ignore a later reference to someone eating steak with ketchup, an unusual combination that just happens to be Trump’s favorite meal.

Overall, I enjoyed 13 Little Blue Envelopes for its scenery, the descriptions of each of the places Ginny visits. For example:

Travestere couldn’t be a real place. It looked like Disney had attacked a corner of Rome with leftover pastel paint and created the coziest, most picturesque neighborhood ever. It seemed to consist entirely of nooks. There were shutters on the windows, overflowing window boxes, hand-lettered signs that were fading perfectly. There were wash lines hung from building to building, draped with white sheets and shirts. All around her were people with cameras, photographing the wash.

Ginny would never have seen Travestere if it weren’t for Aunt Peg’s decision to coax her out of her shell. Ginny doesn’t have much of a personality. It’s her aunt who fuels this story by controlling her niece’s life for a couple of weeks from beyond the grave. At times, I found myself irritated by Aunt Peg’s demands, particularly the ones that placed Ginny in unsafe situations, but I tried not to dwell on it too much. I don’t want to dwell on anything too much these days. That’s the only way to get through the next few years.

A #KidLit Book That Exhibits Everything I Dislike In Literature (But My Kid Loved It)

Recently, my six-year-old left the library with two thick books in her little hands: The League of Beastly Dreadfuls and its sequel, The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed, both written by Holly Grant, illustrated by Josie Portillo, and published by Random House Children’s Books. These novels feature a child named Anastasia McCrumpet who falls into the clutches of a pair of mysterious, silver-toothed “great-aunts” who live in a former Victorian psychiatric institution.

My daughter can read on her own, but she’s not quite able to read middle grade books, so I read the first in this series out loud to her.

Ugh.

It was like reading a 294-page tongue-twister thanks to the author’s penchant for overstuffed sentences, alliteration, and arcane vocabulary. Here’s a random selection (similar examples abound on virtually every page):

(1) Anastasia soon discovered that every day at St. Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather. Standing outside one week later, after seven days of rain and fog, she blinked through the twilit mizzle at the moss fuzzing the asylum bog. (page 59)

(2) Because would-be sickie Mrs. McCrumpet had consulted every expert medic and smooth-talking quack in Mooselick, Anastasia was familiar with many pills and syrups and cure-alls. For example, she knew that waving a bottle of smelling salts beneath someone’s snoot was supposed to jozzle them awake. (page 94)

This wasn’t a quick read, but I powered through it because my daughter wanted to find out who Anastasia’s “great-aunts” really were and why they took her to St. Agony’s. Honestly, I got sucked into the story too, enough to convince me to keep reading even though the novel contained many of my literary pet-peeves, including (but not limited to):

  • Coincidences that resolve the conflict.

Basically, a couple of half-baked characters show up near the end, save the day with random powers, and then turn out to be more than merely superheroes. Some could argue that there are causal connections between these events, but they are weak at best. These characters come out of the blue.

  • Unnecessary negative emphasis on physical characteristics.

How do you know who a villain is? By their unibrow, and Anastasia even refers to an unsavory character as “The Monobrow” instead of using her name.

I also didn’t like certain descriptions in the novel, such as this one, which presents larger body-types in an unfavorable manner for comedic effect:

From somewhere in the house crooned a noise like EEEEEEEE-ooooooooooaaaa. Of course, it was just St. Agony’s settling into its foundations, like a lady with a large rump trying to squeeze into her bikini bottoms. (page 52)

I found myself cringing several times while reading this book.

  • No diversity.

All of the characters in this 2015 book are white. Penguin Random House should try harder to offer alternatives to the homogeneously white narratives that already flood the market. They should publish books that (1) reflect the identities of readers from non-white backgrounds, and (2) introduce readers from racially homogenous families and communities to fictional friends from diverse backgrounds. Fictional friends are no substitute for real-life experiences, but it’s a start.

Conclusion:

I used this book as tool to teach my daughter about plot structure, kindness/acceptance, and the importance of diversity in literature. Our discussions were interesting, and I’m happy to report that my commentary did not ruin her enjoyment of the story. We will read the second book of the series together–we already have it from the library–but it’s too soon for me to commit to the third book, which is scheduled for release next month (August 2017).  My daughter might have to read that one on her own. She is much closer in age to its intended audience than I am anyway.

At the risk of “spoiling” one small piece of the plot, here’s what my six-year-old had to say about The League of Beastly Dreadfuls:

“It’s a good book because I liked it. It shows you how important librarians are.”

Yes, it does. I have nothing to add about the lovely librarian in the story, but when it comes to real-life librarians, we are certainly grateful. Thanks to them, my daughter has access to books I wouldn’t necessarily choose for her, and I think that’s a good thing.

Jane Austen & The “Angel of Death”

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41.

Death lurks on the pages of her Regency era novels — Persuasion, for example, would have been a different story had Lady Elliot and/or her son survived — but it stays in the background, playing a relatively minor role considering the morbid reality of the time. According to Austen scholar Fiona Stafford, as quoted from Jane Austen: A Brief Life in the New York Times (In Jane Austen’s Pages, Death Has No Dominion by Radhika Jones):

By 1817, [Austen] had seen the lives of two first cousins, three sisters-in-law, her sister’s fiancé and her cousin’s husband all cut short. She had lost her father and mourned the deaths of aunts and friends. Her letters are scattered with references to stillbirths and miscarriages, to mothers who died in labor and to infants who succumbed soon afterwards.

Two hundred years ago, average life expectancy in England and Wales was only around age 36 or 37. See Robert Wood, The Effects of Population Redistribution on the Level of Mortality in Nineteenth-Century England and Wales (1985). I don’t know what the average life expectancy was for women of Jane Austen’s socioeconomic class in her region, but I think it’s fair to say that her lifespan of 41 years was hardly unusual for the time.

However, there is evidence to suggest that Austen’s genes and environment held the potential for longevity. As Oxford professor Helena Kelly notes in Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, Austen’s father lived into his 70s, her mother lived to 87, her sister Cassandra lived to 72, and her brother Frank lived to 91, a ripe old age even by our modern standards.

In her book, Kelly describes the day Austen died, writing in Chapter 8:

Dr. Lyford was sent for. He “applied something to give her ease” –almost certainly a substantial dose of laudanum…

At half past four in the morning of Friday, July 18, she died.

She was, it’s fairly clear, killed with kindness. A dose of opiates strong enough to knock her out completely for nine hours has to have at least hastened her death… We may have to consider the—frankly horrifying—possibility that Jane’s illness wouldn’t, on its own, have proved fatal, or not so soon, that it might have been the drugs, and only the drugs, that killed her.

I’ve read a number of theories about the cause of Austen’s death, including Addison’s disease, tuberculosis, lymphoma, and arsenic poisoning, but this portrayal of Austen’s doctor as an “angel of death” is new to me.

It’s plausible that Austen’s medical treatment could have hastened her death — after all that still happens today, resulting in lawsuits like the one against a medical device company at the heart of Amelia Elkins Elkins (a modern take on Persuasion) — but I wouldn’t say it’s “fairly clear,” as Kelly does. Austen’s health had been in decline before she received her final dose of Dr. Lyford’s medication.

Whatever the cause of Austen’s death, whether premature by the standards of her time or not, it’s too bad she didn’t live longer. We can only imagine what else she would’ve contributed to our literary world. As Geoff at The Oddness of Moving Things writes:

I mean she was writing a book, Sandition, near her death with a MIXED RACE character. How would she have finished it? How would it have been accepted? Kelly showed how saucy (to use Austen’s own words) Austen was, how far would she have taken it if she wrote for another 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years?

I wish we knew.

House Arrest: An American Story

 

In House Arrest, by K. A. Holt, twelve-year-old Timothy Davidson faces the consequences of stealing a wallet to pay for his baby brother’s medicine, which costs $1,445.32 for one month. Whatever insurance Timothy’s family has — there are references to “the state” paying for some medical services  — it does not cover all of this child’s serious medical needs. The family is desperate, not that Timothy’s mother wants to admit it. “She never wants to ask for help,” Timothy explains.

Written in verse, the novel consists of Timothy’s entries into a journal the juvenile court requires him to keep during his house arrest. It’s a middle grade book, ideal for children around Timothy’s age, but its content also appeals to adults. The anguish Timothy’s family feels over Levi’s medical challenges is vivid and relatable, probably because the novel is drawn at least in part from the author’s experience.

I read the novel in one sitting with a lump in my throat and tears stinging at the corners of my eyes because this story stirred memories of my twins’ fragile beginnings. My daughters did not have Levi’s diagnosis, but they received expensive medical care and faced heart-wrenching mortality and morbidity odds.

“So many things for such a little baby,” Timothy recalls a nurse saying about the child’s medical supplies. I remember hearing similar words when my tiny former-26 weekers came home after 78 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with oxygen tanks as big as I am and apnea monitors that had a tendency to go off whenever we were in elevators.

One of my former 26-weekers, who is now 9-years-old, read House Arrest after I did. She teared up too, but for different reasons. She couldn’t understand why Timothy’s family couldn’t afford the medical care Levi needed. There’s no good explanation for why anyone in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, should struggle to pay for medically necessary care (or forgo it altogether).

Our system of private and public insurance leaves too many families without the coverage they need — a reality that may get far worse thanks to Congress. In many cases, families have to rely on the kindness of acquaintances to survive.

These days, in a time of rising medical costs and inadequate government support, there is nothing more American than asking for help to pay for medical expenses on crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe. Sadly, though, research has shown that the majority of these campaigns do not reach their financial targets. People with greater means, such as having extensive social networks, technological skills, and higher education levels, are more likely to succeed, and these are not necessarily the people with the greatest needs.

Rest assured, though, House Arrest portrays a more optimistic outcome for Timothy’s family. That’s part of what makes it such a satisfying novel.