Persuasion by Jane Austen, adapted by Michelene Wandor

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BBC Radio 4 Extra, 29 April - 2 May 2011
Michelene Wandor's three-part dramatization, first broadcast in 1987, explored the relationship between public image and private inclination in the small, self-enclosed world of eighteenth century rural England.
Part one began with Jane Austen (Sorcha Cusack) introducing the protagonists one by one, rather like an emcee at a fashion-show. This strategy emphasized the performative nature of this society: everyone believed themselves to be perpetually on show, even while at home, and behaved accordingly. Emotions had to be suppressed beneath artifically polite forms of verbal discourse, full of elaborate compliments and insincere expressions of flattery. Every public ritual - an 'at home,' a walk in the countryside - provided an opportunity for the characters to show: the Musgrove sisters (Alison Dowling, Jane Dowell) viewed such occasions as an opportunity to find a suitable marriage partner.
Wandor demonstrated that these characters had no inner lives: Cusack's Austen, as narrator, voiced their feelings through asides delivered direct to listeners. The dramatization - at least in its early stages - resembled an eighteenth century morality-play, with Austen in a godlike role assuming primary responsibility for determining the course of the action.
Due to misfortune (or was it luck?), Anne Elliot (Juliet Stevenson) could not accommodate herself to this way of life. She had once enjoyed a liaison with Captain Wentworth (Tim Brierley), but this had now ended, and she considered herself an old maid at the ripe old age of twenty-six. In Wandor's adaptation Austen began by treating Anne much like the other protagonists, by explaining her feelings through asides. As the action progressed, however, Anne acquired more and more self-determination, as she took over Austen's role and voiced her opinions directly to the listeners.
What occasioned such a radical change of character? Partly this is suggested by Austen's novel, which shows Anne refusing to respect the petty class and gender assumptions of her peers, and making decisions in her own interest. However Juliet Stevenson signalled the changes in Anne's character through skilful vocal delivery. At first she spoke breathlessly, taking pauses between phrases as if unsure of whether to trust in her opinions. Once she understood that Wentworth still cared for her (not because of the way she behaved but because of who she was), her voice changed. She spoke in measured tones, enabling listeners to grasp the gist of what she was saying, as well as making her seem a figure of authority.
In the third episode, Wandor underlined the extent of Anne's change of character by drawing a deliberate sonic contrast between her style of delivert and the period dance music - played on a square piano by Kenneth Mobs - that formed a backdrop to the action. The music neatly summed up the social mores of this society: formal, repetitive, full of clunking chords that force all dancers to keep in step and maintain their poise (even when they are exhausted). Stevenson's free, uninhibited style of speaking repudiated all these ideas, as she expressed precisely what was on her mind at any given moment.
This fascinating dramatization proved beyond doubt how differently Austen is treated in various media. Most film and television versions of her work emphasize the visual ements - period sets and costumes, with frequent shots of landscapes and/or interiors summing up the characters' state of mind. Wandor radio dramatisation of Persuasion concentrated on the novel's psychological elements, transforming it into a mental struggle for power between the narrator and the main protagonist. The fact that Anne emerged trimuphant provided grounds for cautious optimism; if a young woman trusts in herself and her reactions, she can transcend the social and behavioural restrictions imposed on her by her society.