Austen’s afterlives continue to regenerate, appearing in varied genre forms ranging from the familiar spin-off novel to the increasingly popular transmedia, online universe. Especially after the huge success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries [LBD] and Emma Approved, individual writers and collaborative groups have been drawn to the possibilities within storytelling online. One recent and far less popular transmedia adaptation, titled Project Persuasion and featuring as its central text the blog “Half Hope,” raises a number of questions regarding primarily textual transmedia adaptations and their ability to bring Austen’s world and characters closer to modern day readers. The blog-centric adaptation’s ability to erode the gap between author and reader (and text and reader) arguably manifests differently from and in some ways improves upon the digital storytelling work that occurs in video-centered adaptations like LBD. The Anne in “Half Hope”—modern and independent, and yet still familiar to readers as the introspective, heartbroken, resilient character from Austen’s ur-text—feels like a living, breathing person because of both the form and arc of her story. We as readers both recognize her and recognize ourselves in her: a consequence, arguably, of the interactivity of the epistolary-like transmedia form, which lends itself to adapting Austen’s Persuasion in ways that other media forms (film, for example) do not. Though far from the most interesting or engaging adaptation of Austen’s work, Project Persuasion seems to gesture towards a digital afterlife for Austen that, like the internet itself, feels infinite in its capacity for growth, collaboration, and imagination.
Project Persuasion was created in 2014 as a collaboration among several women, though Lisa Brideau was responsible for most of the material. The home page notes that the project is “inspired by The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and The Autobiography of Jane Eyre” (25 July 2015). Like LBD, the project is transmedia, meaning that its narrative is presented “across several media formats”: in this case, a blog, a YouTube channel, and a Twitter feed (Caddy 44). Despite the range of media featured, in contrast to an adaptation like LBD, which primarily tells its story via YouTube videos, Project privileges the text form, with the vast majority of the story told via the blog, “Half Hope.” This blog, as its subtitle explains, is written by “an anonymous lady” who goes by the alias Anne Elliot. As most blogs do, it operates as a kind of digital diary, wherein the author posts as it is convenient, documenting and reflecting on her “experiences.” Modern, Canadian Anne is a college grad who worked for a small publishing firm for a few years before the firm went out of business. In her new state of joblessness, she has returned to her childhood home to sort out what she wants to do with her life. The navy, so central to Austen’s text, is replaced with a blurry business world: Wentworth (W) is an ethics-driven entrepreneur, Charles Musgrove is going to inherit a family law firm, and Mr. Elliot (Will) is a Wall Street-type. All character and place names come from the novel and are “aliases” for their equivalents in Canada. Furthermore, all of the characters retain their personalities and qualities as found in Austen’s original. Indeed “Half Hope” often feels less like an adaptation than a simple retelling—so much of the story remains identical to Austen’s text, though without the benefit of Austen’s genius.
Project Persuasion’s transmedia structure and its presence online evoke a number of questions, some of which will be addressed in this essay, but since the blog “Half Hope” takes center stage within this project it is worthwhile to first look closely at the blog form and consider how it does or does not lend itself to Austen’s original story. Blogs (short for “weblog”) can and often do seem like typed-up and web-published diaries or journals: that is, they document the writer’s day-to-day experiences utilizing first person and an informal, personal tone (though a number deviate from this approach). Unlike a completed diary, however, which is read like a novel, blogs are meant to be re-engaged with continually; because the narrative is actively unfolding, readers return to the site to read about the writer’s latest experiences or thoughts. To begin reading a blog is like starting to read a novel at chapters seven or eight—the reader must make the choice to navigate backwards to the beginning in order to catch up to the latest or present moment, as they might with a serialized story. Yet the blog, though similar to older forms like the personal journal or serialized novel, is a distinct genre. The blog’s history and structure—namely, its “stacked”1 structure and the porousness of its narrative (discussed below)—are unique to the internet, and thus any blog retelling of a historical novel or other media form necessarily forces a modernization of the story or at least a modernization of the audience’s experience of that story.
A blog adaptation of Persuasion, in other words, is likely to produce two interwoven but distinct changes to Austen’s text: a personal, first-person Anne and one who is modern. Anne-in-first-person is, of course, not a concept unique to media forms found online. The diary form is a popular one for Austen adaptations, as exemplified in novels like Bridget Jones’s Diary and other video projects like LBD. Yet there is something about the diary form that connects nicely with the introspectiveness of Persuasion. The act of writing a diary facilitates reflection by the very fact of its author having to communicate and interpret her experiences. The choice of this form for an adaptation of Anne Elliot’s story is a smart one for this reason, given how much of the novel is dedicated to Anne’s internal struggle with her feelings about Wentworth and her memory of her past decisions. But, importantly, “Half Hope” is not a diary: it is a blog. The relationship between these genres has recently drawn some scholarly attention. Emma Segar, for example, in an article in the International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, claims “the development of the blog as an accessible online platform created a new epistolary form for writers” (20–21). The blog can be understood as an updated take on the epistolary, then, and part of what makes it updated is that it is “accessible”—in other words, it is public.
This public nature seems to run contrary to Anne Elliot’s reserve and instinct for quiet perseverance, but “Half Hope” meets this issue head-on and, if anything, shows that the blog form might align more closely with the characters and themes of Austen’s novel than a static form like the diary. The blog begins with Anne’s reluctance to create a blog2 and repeatedly emphasizes the importance of anonymity. The atmosphere at the beginning of the blog is one of secrecy but also disclosure, as if the site is being created purely because writing a diary can be cathartic,3 an experience Anne needs even at the expense of privacy—because, of course, in the current age of performative social media, the catharsis-outlet must be posted online. Notably, Anne’s media form of choice is textual, as well as epistolary. As opposed to the vlog (video blog) form utilized by LBD and Emma Approved, the narrative in “Half Hope” does not show the faces of Anne or any of the other characters, allowing Anne to maintain a degree of privacy that would be impossible in an adaptation shaped like LBD. In short, the blog form, as an updated and textual version of the diary, opens up Anne’s private life to the public, but it does so in a way that preserves the original Anne Elliot’s natural introspectiveness. By acknowledging the public nature of “Half Hope” and expressing discomfort with it, “Anne” feels familiar, both for those who understand her characterization in Austen’s original and for those comfortable with the conventions of the blog genre generally.
“Half Hope,” as a consequence of its form and its modernity, works to bring Anne’s story to the present day and does so effectively via some clever reworkings of plot points and characterizations. Such could be said, though, of any decent updated version of Austen’s work. What is particularly effective about this adaptation is the degree to which certain conventions of recent Austen adaptations lend themselves to Persuasion: that is, there is a reciprocal relationship between Persuasion’s easy-to-update story and the stylistic norms of Austen (and other eighteenth- or nineteenth-century) adaptations.
One consistent convention among recent Austen reboots is the reframing of the protagonists’ romantic conclusion. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, in their article “Multimedia Emma: Three Adaptations,” note that in the extremely modern and transmedia Emma Approved, the most updated feature is that “the major characters do not even think of marriage; the triumph is just becoming boyfriend and girlfriend.” Lori Halvorsen Zerne draws attention to this same change as it appears in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, noting that Lizzie’s “triumph” emerges from something other than a romantic partnership with Darcy: “the romance plot is secondary to the story of Lizzie’s career.” Even after they get together, Darcy takes the backseat to both Lizzie’s personal journey and her career goals. Perhaps this privileging of career over romance is the logical conclusion to the YouTube series, but as Zerne notes, this shift in focus is a significant change from Austen’s original text: “Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship lacks the permanence that Elizabeth and Darcy’s has at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice.” This permanence, as Alistair M. Duckworth notes in his classic The Improvement of the Estate, is a staple of most of Austen’s work. For him, the permanence of marriage is interwoven with the cultural heritage and social responsibility intrinsic to the “estate,” both as a real, specific place and as a concept (184).4 The trend for updated adaptations to replace marriage with dating, then, interrupts this thematic marriage of individual relationships with larger cultural or societal norms. To conclude a version of Mansfield Park with a Fanny and Edward who are merely dating, for example, would be to miss much of the point of Austen’s novel: it is not so much that Edward is well suited for Fanny as that Fanny is essential to the success and perpetuation of the Mansfield estate, itself an idealized microcosm of English society.
“Half Hope,” like Emma Approved, LBD, and countless other modernized Austen adaptations, does not conclude with the heroine’s marriage to the hero but instead ends with Anne happily reunited with W as boyfriend and girlfriend. This relationship—though perhaps automatically more serious and marriage-bound than that of the characters mentioned above, because Anne and W are older—deviates from the “permanence” found in Austen’s text. And yet, as Duckworth repeatedly notes, Persuasion is not quite like Austen’s other novels, particularly in its conclusion. Anne and Wentworth’s marriage is not a symbolic union of themes nor a reconfirmation of society’s structure: “in Persuasion . . . society never really recovers from the disintegration evident at the beginning . . . uniquely among Austen heroines, Anne [does not] return to the stable and rooted existence of the land; she has ‘no Uppercross hall before her, no landed estate, no headship of family’” (181). Captain and Mrs. Wentworth’s marriage is necessarily less stable, less permanent, than that of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. There is no family home to inhabit, nor, indeed, a family name to perpetuate. There will always be, for them, a higher risk of danger or death because of their connection to the Navy.
My use of the future tense is intentional: Persuasion’s comparably open-ended conclusion feels freeing and exciting. Where will Anne and Wentworth travel? What will Anne think of life at sea? In many ways, Persuasion’s conclusion feels more like the beginning of Anne and Wentworth’s story. That they seem to be literally and figuratively untethering from their past is no doubt partly (and perhaps unfairly) the consequence of Persuasion’s being Austen’s last completed novel. As James Thompson noted during the 2017 Jane Austen Summer Program, there is a temptation to falsely attach a Prospero-like interpretation to the novel’s ending (is this Austen’s goodbye? Is she, like Anne, taking the plunge and leaving the literary and real world behind?). It is unlikely that Austen knew Persuasion would be her final complete novel, given her progress with Sanditon, but there can be no doubt that Persuasion gestures towards a changing society and imagines, however conservatively, how different a marriage might be in such a context.
This particular mode of adaptation, then, by the very fact of being modern, seems well-suited to Persuasion. What seems odd and disingenuous in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries or Emma Approved works well in “Half Hope.” The adaptation trope of replacing marriage with dating—a logical change given women’s changed place in modern society and contemporary attitudes towards marriage—in this case guarantees an effective repetition of the new-beginnings, unknown quality of Austen’s novel. Just as the internet as a tool for storytelling is ever-expanding and impossible to predict, so too is the future of these characters (and the future of Austen adaptation): the blog form, paired with the conventions attached to adapting within it, serves to bring aspects of Austen’s story into the present day and closer to us, even as the ur-text lends itself to that process.
But it is not merely the blog form that does this work. Project Persuasion is a transmedia project, something that in and of itself helps to force modernity and that lends itself to the introspectiveness and open-endedness of the original. The mechanics of the transmedia form allows the storytellers to evoke, highlight, or expand on concepts present in Austen’s novel. For example, the structure of Project can be considered a contemporary reinvention of the structure of Persuasion. The novel, more so than any of Austen’s other work, is precisely located in time; seven exact dates appear in the opening paragraphs, for example, allowing the reader to situate the story historically and to accurately gauge characters’ ages. Beginning the novel with a meticulous account of the Elliots’ timelines suits the narrative to follow, given it is also a novel thematically preoccupied with time. Both Anne and Wentworth are conscious of how heavily the present moment and its relation to the past weighs on them, and neither forgets how many years have passed since their heartbreak.5 While the exactness of time must be explicitly noted in the novel via dates and remembered events, the same specificity is accomplished in Project Persuasion by the structure of the various media forms utilized.
Part of what makes a blog, Twitter feed, or YouTube channel different from a novel is that their information is presented in sections over time, using the stacking method noted above. The same could be said of a fanfiction or serialized story, but in the case of these different media types the very framework is dated and timed: each post or tweet or video is always already archived, already a historicized document that can be located in a particular moment and webspace. Every blog post notes the day and time (down to the minute) that it was published; tweets appear in a feed and are also precisely labeled; YouTube videos show the date of publication and feature an additional layer of preciseness in that the viewer, upon clicking the play button, knows exactly how much of the video has passed and how much has yet to play at any given moment. Readers of the blog or other media posts, then, are as conscious of time and its impact within this narrative as Anne or W and, moreover, if they follow the story in real time from its beginning through its conclusion, experience it in a similar way. Anne as a believable, real person is legitimized by this clear temporality—her posts can be located in time, and thus her story can be mapped alongside the contemporary moment—but such would be the case with any Austen heroine as presented in these media spaces. What makes Project Persuasion unique, then, is that its ur-text provides the thematic foundation for this temporality: Persuasion is, in a sense, itself archival.
The transmedia structure, besides simultaneously mirroring and modernizing Austen’s plot, works nicely with Persuasion’s heroine. As anyone active in online Austen fan communities or other fandoms knows, the internet offers spaces for people with similar interests, beliefs, or ideas to digitally “gather.” The freedom within the internet and the accessibility of the specific forms utilized by Project ensures that people of all ages and all locations can work together on any variety of projects (co-writing novel-length fanfiction, for example, or curating YouTube videos, or exchanging ideas via Twitter or forums). It is not hard to imagine, then, a modern Anne Elliot, who is such a stranger within her own family and whose idea of good company is “‘the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation’” (182), turning to the internet as a potential place of connection with others.
Indeed, the heroine’s condition almost marks her out for participation in a transmedia world. Anne is lonely, and lonely people often feel at home on the internet because, as Morahan-Martin and Shumacher argue in their article “Loneliness and Social Uses of the Internet,” “the internet provides an ideal social environment for lonely people to interact with others. Not only does it provide a vastly expanded social network, but also it provides altered social interaction patterns online that may be particularly attractive to those who are lonely” (662). It is telling that in “Half Hope,” Anne’s posts become longer but less frequent once she gets to Bath and begins interacting with W. Once there and surrounded by people like Mrs. Smith, W, and, to a lesser extent, Will Elliot, she turns to this blog community less and less often for social connection; upon finding “good company” that values her physical presence, Anne no longer needs blogging in the same way. If the transmedia structure in some sense suits the novel’s structure, it even more closely suits Austen’s heroine. As an updated diary form, Project opens up her introspectiveness to readers, but it is its presence on the internet and thus within a community that makes it such a believable form for an Anne who, at Lyme, looks wistfully at the Harvilles and thinks, “‘These would have been all my friends’” (105).
The internet community suits an isolated Anne in the same sense that the blog form suits a reflective Anne, but the Project’s truly innovative narrative strength comes from its ability to narrow the gap between author, reader, and character. A transmedia project distinguishes itself from other forms primarily because of the reading experience it facilitates. The story becomes experiential because of its media diversity, and, because it is experiential, it feels more real. Underscoring this realism is the practice of online media consumption. The fact that one narrative can be privileged over another not only creates a unique and individualized reading experience, it also mimics readers’ daily internet usage. Scott Caddy in his chapter “Fan Media and Transmedia: Jane Austen in the Digital Age,” argues,
the composition of these specific adaptations across several forms of media is an exact replica of the lives of readers and viewers in 2014. It is not uncommon for people to have several social media accounts that are linked together or updated separately. . . . [These adaptations present] a narrative that . . . mixes in with the newsfeeds and browsing habits of a contemporary viewer/reader. (48)
Anne’s tweet might appear on a reader’s feed alongside tweets from real life celebrities; her blog post might be read by a fan in the same hour that he or she reads the daily news or a friend’s travel blog; her videos of piano practice might appear in a stream connecting a new music video from Beyoncé and a clip from last night’s Daily Show. The line between the real and the fictional, for such a reader, becomes blurred.
The fact that Project Persuasion narratively privileges the textual blog over the other media forms likely blurs this reader/character line even further. Whereas with LBD or Emma Approved the viewer is unlikely to forget that each vlog episode is, in a Hollywood sense, a production (the scripts are well-written, the actors are talented, the set and lighting are clearly professional), readers of “Half Hope” may forget that the faceless writer behind each post is, in truth, an author creating a character. YouTube, the home of LBD episodes, is meant to offer viewers entertaining videos, not necessarily access to a community or other social media-like information. Thus transmedia adaptations that privilege YouTube videos as the main narrative mode are recognizably operating within the entertainment industry; they are clearly telling a story. Blogs, on the other hand—because they are epistolary, textual, and ubiquitous (i.e., not limited to one platform or industry)—are less obviously enacting a plot. They, along with tweets and other social media posts, can more easily blend within daily social internet practices, and, consequently, feel “real.” Project Persuasion’s particular transmedia form accordingly weaves the world of Persuasion into readers’ everyday lives and makes Austen’s characters digitally tangible to them.
Because it is digitally tangible, Project Persuasion is consequently malleable or porous, meaning that the story, as it is being created, always has the potential for change. Persuasion itself is responsible for this open-ended and collaborative possibility, because of what some might consider a shortcoming of the novel. Shapard, in his introduction to The Annotated Persuasion, notes that one structural disadvantage of the text is the “limited nature of the plot”:
[B]y having a pair of lovers who came close to marriage earlier and who still harbor powerful affection for each other . . . [the novel] has limited means of delaying or complicating their eventual union. Once events have brought Anne and Captain Wentworth in close proximity again, the course is basically set. (xxii)
While this inevitability (and thus predictability) is arguably true of the novel, it is almost certainly true of most fanfiction. As Alexandra Edwards, notable within the Janeite realm as an editor for LBD, argues, fanfiction nearly always has a certain inevitability: “Regency AU” (a phrase utilizing the ubiquitous fandom term AU, or “alternate universe”), for example, operates “as a popular storehouse of pleasurable tropes, ready to be taken up and transformed by all kinds of fans” (11). Fanfictions draw on recognizable events or ideas in the hopes of recreating for both author and audience the enjoyment that those same people draw from Austen’s (or Austen imitators’) texts. Edwards cites Annette Svensson, who claims that, for much of Austen fanfic, “readers and/or viewers already know what will happen and can thus focus on the way the story is told and compare it with the ‘original’ story or other remakes” (12). These conditions can make for pleasurable, if not very surprising or creative, reading.
But the serialized blog form that “Half Hope” takes and, more significantly, the transmedia form the entire Project takes work to interrupt this inevitability, despite being a fanfic remake of a novel already on a predictable track. This story, because it so closely mimics contemporary readers’ online habits and because of the media forms it utilizes, seems to be happening in real time. Thus its ending, like our own, is in the future. This is also the case with serialization and of chapter-by-chapter fanfiction, but Project Persuasion subverts this historically predictable genre because it can be shaped, however slightly, by the interaction between Anne and her readers. Because comments are enabled on both the blog and YouTube and the retweet and @-sign functions are available on Twitter, readers can insert themselves explicitly into the storytelling process. Readers can express their interest in events or characters that Anne has told them about; they can offer advice or sympathy; they can provide information from their own lives that might influence Anne’s response to a situation.
These exchanges via comments can actually work to shape Anne’s character as she is reimagined in the modern day—as, for example, in an interaction between Anne and a reader about vacation time6—and can help to draw connecting lines between previous and future blog posts or tweets. Moreover, these interactions offer opportunities for readers familiar with Austen’s text to compensate for Anne’s family’s lack of appreciation for her. Whereas in the novel, for instance, Anne’s piano playing is valued primarily for its function (and even then only by the Musgroves), in Project Anne’s playing is praised via YouTube comments.7 In these online spaces, people are not only thinking of Anne as real, but they are also seeing and caring for her in ways that few characters in the novel do. The transmedia space allows for a kind of Anne fanclub where the readers—rather than individually processing the story on paper pages—can express support for her and consequently alter a small part of her characterization: a supported Anne surrounded by fans cannot exactly correspond to the lonely, Austen-Anne. The transmedia form makes Persuasion more immediate or real to readers in part because they are part of the story itself, even as that immediacy alters, however slightly, that story. Any transmedia adaptation opens the door to collaborative work and to community experience, but this one in particular ties nicely to the undefined, forward-thinking, and adventurous resolution of its source text.
Project Persuasion works to modernize Austen’s novel while remaining loyal (for the most part) to the integrity of the original text. But the same could be said of a well-written spinoff novel or film. What makes Project and other transmedia stories notable is their location online and the shift of their narratives into readers’ lives. This particular movement of Austen’s story into lived (if digital) experience allows us to expand our understanding of adaptation and to rethink these novels as breathing, growing, shifting things, in part because its textually-focused transmedia form seems well-suited to some of the very things that make Persuasion different from other Austen novels. Beginning any Austen novel can feel a bit like starting a fantasy or sci-fi story: her world is so elaborate, the rules so particular to her time and place, that hers can feel like a built universe as complex and foreign as that found in The Lord of the Rings. Yet as in any decent fantasy series (and more so than in most), Austen’s world feels perfectly true to human nature and actual experience. Her worlds and novels are therefore open to play—readers can jump in and expand in any direction using her dynamic characters and places. Novels and films are great spaces for partaking in this imaginative play, but the internet, which is constantly evolving and inevitably participatory, offers something else: a form or forms that, more so than with these more traditional media modes, can be minutely adjusted to the exigencies of individual texts. Like Anne and Wentworth’s naval marriage—unanchored and brimming with possibilities—the internet and its transmedia spaces represent a new, exciting, almost overwhelming frontier.
1Blogging retains a structure that harkens back to the earliest days of the internet: all blog posts, as Scott Rosenberg argues in the introduction to Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters, utilize the stack:
[a] data structure in which each new addition is piled on the top, pushing down previous items. . . . Stacks are therefore said to work on a “last in, first out” principle . . . , a stack of news and information is a page in which the last thing that the publisher added is the first thing you see. Such a design was present at the Web’s creation and would keep reasserting itself like a genetic trait, turning up at critical points in the Web’s development. (9)
4“In Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma . . . the properly run estate exists as an exemplary social model, an objective paradigm of order. . . . The heroines invariably become mistresses of estates or parsonages . . . but only after they have learned, if they do not innately possess, qualities of social responsibility. . . . [T]heir journeys toward a social destination . . . have stabilized the world of their novels, as their marriages have guaranteed the continuity of the community” (184).
5“What might not eight years do? Events of every description, changes, alienations, removals,—all, all must be comprised in it; and oblivion of the past—how natural, how certain too! It included nearly a third part of her own life” (64–65).
6Anne often expresses distaste and even discomfort not just with the spending habits of her father and sister and their peers but also with the culture of the wealthy. At one point she agrees with a reader’s comment about feeling guilty for going on vacations when there are people in need: “Glad I'm not alone in this. . . . I used to feel guilty about vacations too (it's been awhile since I've been on one)!” (2 Feb. 2015).