BBC Radio 7, 4-6 February 2009
This three-part version of Austen's last novel described the journey
towards self-awareness on the part of the central character Anne Elliot (Juliet Stevenson). This process was evident in several
ways; in the first part in particular, Anne's dialogue kept being interrupted by the intrusive narration of Jane Austen (Sorcha
Cusack), who kept commenting on Anne's behaviour and guiding the listener's responses in the belief that Anne could not express
her ideas for herself. In the second and third parts of this serial, Anne gained sufficient self-confidence to talk for herself;
consequently Austen's role within the drama became less and less significant. By the end of the adaptation Anne had not only
found herself herself a husband - Mr. Wentworth (Tim Briley) - but assumed total responsibility for telling the story.
Like most of Austen's novels, Persuasion is set in a small self-enclosed
world, whose inhabitants do not go out that much, and when they do, the occasions are often very important (a ball, or a dinner
party being two examples). The Elliot family life comprises a series of rituals - visiting friends, going for a walk by the
sea, or receiving guests - all of which involve specific behavioural rituals. In Vanessa Whitburn's production these rituals
assumed a life of their own as power-games by which the Elliot sisters could either control or repel their potential suitors.
Every word became a weapon, while truth was often considered less important that verbal expediency. If a lie proved more effective,
then why not tell it?
True to her fundamentally decent nature, Anne Elliot began by shunning such verbal
games; rather she took a vicarious pleasure in her sisters' (or her friends') accomplishments - for example Louisa Musgrave's
(Jane Dowell's) impending marriage. However Anne could not remain sidelined for ever, as she discovered to her cost that Lady
Russell (Patricia Gallimore) had designs upon her as a possible candidate for marriage. This was the major disadvantage of
living in this world; no one ever had any privacy. Anne's process of development began when she repudiated her society's social
rituals and started to work out her own destiny.
Radio is an ideal medium for Jane Austen: whereas television adaptations distract
the viewer's attention through pretty sets and costume, or the creation of spurious sex scenes (remember Colin Firth in Pride
and Prejudice?), radio concentrates our attention on Austen's linguistic brilliance. Her range of subjects might be limited,
but she has a unique capacity to understand her characters and the way they behave.
In many ways Micheline Wandor's adaptation might be described as postmodern in focus:
Cusack's Jane Austen offered her opinions on the characters, but the characters themselves - Anne in particularly - frequently
contradicted them, as if they did not want to be subject to the author's controlling presence. Wandor not only showed the
characters fighting for self-determination, but also competing for the listener's attention. Juliet Stevenson's Anne proved
particularly adept at this, using her considerable vocal powers to solicit and retain our interest.