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Oxford World’s Classics: Persuasion

A tale of the pain and peril of human isolation not quite overcome, a modern book: Persuasion. Better known and somewhat misunderstood as a story of reprieve & retrieval: joy snatched from a descent into ever-increasing age, illness and death. But really a book of a revenant made human, of deep emotional pain & exhaustion.

The latest Oxford reissue (2008) is a good buy for the type book, a half-way house between the rich apparatus type books (Nortons, Longmans, Broadviews) and those which accompany the text with a minimal introduction or afterward (Signet, Barnes & Noble). It includes the appendix, Austen and the Navy by Vivien Jones found in the 2008 Oxford Mansfield Park, where Jones corrects and adds information ignored in Austen’s idealized depiction of the navy; and also Henry Austen’s biographical notice first published in 1817 with the dual posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion; and the cancelled chapters or Austen’s first version of an ending for Persuasion.

I assume many readers will immediately see the use of such an appendix, and importance of Henry’s biography (albeit brief and impossibly hagiographic), but might perhaps think these cancelled chapters are superfluous to anyone but the scholarly student of Austen. Not so. They contain passages which suggest how Austen might have worked the book up to three volumes had she lived: for example, the Crofts seem to know that their brother had been engaged to Miss Anne Elliot, and be working to bring them together.

They have the potential for high drama, clashes as well as comedy, and in both the 1995 BBC and 2007 Clerkenwell/WBGH Persuasions, two slightly differing strong scenes are created towards the ends of the films out of this first ending: both Nick Dear and Simon Burke chose to dramatize Wentworth’s (for him) traumatic agonized offering of Kellynch Hall to Anne on the supposition Anne is to marry Mr Elliot. They have textual authority for a Lady Russell acting with an arrogant hostile sneer reminiscent of her inner reaction (as recorded by Austen) when she was told that Wentworth had engaged himself to Louisa Musgrove, only here it is directed at Wentworth and makes him (but only momentarily) despair (the 1995 version) or feel a renewed repugnance (the 2007), and Anne (in the 2007) feel intense anxiety and distress at the misunderstanding Lady Russell is fostering.

When in 1980 Oxford broke with the tradition of printing Northanger Abbey with Persuasion, they filled in the slender book with the cancelled chapters, and in 2004 added Henry’s biographical notice. One might have hoped they would include James Austen-Leigh’s important 1870/1 memoir of his aunt’s life; but alas, they published this separately in 2002 with Henry Austen’s two different biographical notices, Anna Lefroy’s Recollections of Aunt Jane, and Caroline Austen’s My Aunt Jane Austen: A Memoir, edited by Kathryn Sutherland.

How does this edition compare with others of the same type, the full apparatus and minimal editions? Deirdre Shauna Lynch’s introduction shows the latest trends in Austen criticism in emphasizing how the book’s time frame is overtly rooted in a specific time and place, between the capture of Napoleon and his escape, and in reading it through historical lens; in line with the other Oxfords, feminism is now avoided, so (ironically) the introduction comes most alive towards the end when she moves to discuss Anne’s debate with Harville over women’s roles and natures but still remains muted.

As an introduction for most readers, Gillian Beer’s essay in the rival half-way house edition, the 1998 Penguin (reissued 2003) is much better. It’s much more accessibly written, clear and simple; while short, her essay adds a new insight that has begun to affect readings (and films): the novel may be regarded as a kind of dream ghost-like love story which dwells on the silent intensely rich life of the disregarded heroine (a “solitary island”); Beer praises Austen’s effective frequent use of free indirect speech as an attempt to create this world of subjectivity kept in check; at the same time she notes the signs of its unfinished state.

Since the text has been freshly edited with an attempt to hold closer to Austen’s spelling and punctuation, I’d have recommended this one over the Oxford, but that it lacks the cancelled chapters and biographical notice, and thus represents a sad falling away from the 1966 Penguin edition of Persuasion by D. W. Harding, which made readily available for an inexpensive price for the first time in the century James Austen-Leigh’s transformative 1870/1 Memoir of Austen, together with the penultimate cancelled chapter (but for the last paragraph the second cancelled chapter is almost exactly that of the final chapter of the book as presently published), and a long excellent essay by him on the novel and memoir.

Among the minimalist editions, the Signet with Margaret Drabble’s introduction is yet another clearly-written insightful essay, and if the reader is not persuaded (pun intended) that the cancelled chapters, biography and other critical pieces are of service, there is an argument that Drabble’s edition (as in the case of her introductions to the Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma and Northanger Abbey Signets) is the best reading edition of Persuasion for the average reader. She edits sensibly (based on Chapman) and in her introduction discerns in Persuasion a new progressive outlook in the book’s inclusion of more fringe people, a new generosity of spirit towards the fallen and injured, a remarkable turn towards rooting experience in natural forces of all types and more & lower social worlds.

Unfortunately (as with the other new afterwards of this series), the afterward to Drabble’s Persuasion, Diana Johnson’s piece is embarrassingly simple-minded and wastes pages: she was perhaps instructed to appeal to undergraduate composition students with an explicit numbering and description of Austen’s techniques that assumes Austen was writing consciously with a marketplace like our own in mind.

So if you don’t share Drabble’s political vision or reading of the book, the similarly minimalist (but still respectably edited and framed) Barnes and Noble 2003 Persuasion, introduced by Susan Ostrow Weisser may then be marginally better for you than Drabble’s. In lieu of the overtly dumbing down afterwards offered in the latest Signets, and like the other Barnes and Noble’s Austen texts I’ve reviewed, there is a full note on the film adaptations, and a selection of little known unusual 19th century commentary. I particularly appreciated the excerpt from Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, which taught me where a fantastical elaboration of the rumor of Austen’s seaside romance came from: Mr Austen and his daughters are said to have been travelling through Switzerland and received the news of her lover’s brain fever on their way to Chamouni (resembling some of the recent books and films about Austen and Tom Lefroy). And the unashamed frankness of others: “Through [Persuasion] runs a strain of pathos unheard of in its predecessors” (from Scribner’s Magazine, 1891). Weisser provides a genuinely unidealized and persuasive account of Austen’s life; and she gives you an overview of the book which is sensible, readable, openly humanist and woman-centered. And the cover illustration is appealing too.

There is a tradition in cover illustrations for Persuasion: picturesque scenes of Bath or a plain-looking grave young woman. Hence the picture that graced the green 1964 Signet (introduction Margaret Drabble), the first version of Persuasion I ever read—and loved dearly.

The choice of Amanda Root and Sally Hawkins for the lead role in the two recent film adaptations follows this illustration history.

This tradition for covers is also followed in two of the full apparatus editions, both of which are excellent (and include the cancelled chapters called by Galperin the “original ending”) and offer picturesque scenes of Bath on their covers: Patricia Meyer Spacks’s 1995 Norton critical and William Galperin’s 2008 Longman Persuasion, e.g., from the Longman:

Although (alas) brief, Spacks’s introduction focuses us sharply on the book’s inwardness and (resembling Mansfield Park in this) sociologically-detailed and mapped text; she picks a excellent set of essays; A Walton Litz’s finely discriminated account of landscape in the novel; Robert Hopkins’s account of its modernity (its sense of chance, time) and how it reverses a number of attitudes found in Austen’s earlier novels (on first love for example); Mary Astell seems to sum up much that has been said variously; Claudia Johnson defends, and most interesting, Cheryl Ann Weissman writes of the book’s elusive schemes, in-depth and mysterious heroine & haunted fairy tale atmosphere.

Galperin’s Longman Persuasion makes good choice of contemporary materials and reiterates his (perhaps provocatively startlingly and not really persuasive point of view in a short and much more clearly written (than his book) introduction to the Longmans. He makes his case more in his choice of secondary materials. Instead of the usual reprint of Austen’s letters to Fanny Knight about who to marry and the importance of love, he reprints letters by Austen during the hard time of choosing a place to live in Bath, and the few towards the end of her time there which register her dislike and the one letter from Lyme. There is also a long section of reviews.

If for nothing else, his choice of illustrations makes his book desirable. He makes visible to the reader the realities of the places Austen describes. For example, he reprints a contemporary print of Lyme:

Finally, a third: Linda Bree’s Broadview edition. She breaks from the traditional covers to show us Montreal Harbour, c 1875, a photograph by William Notman. Her long introduction begins with some central unproven assumptions (Persuasion is the title Austen would have picked; it is essentially a finished book); however, her analysis of the extant text is so sensitive and insightful she provides much suggestion about what could have been elaborated out of the text we have: for example, Anne’s life “imprisoned in the wall of solitude and silence” is broken in upon unusually by Mr Elliot and thus she is strongly attracted to him; in a longer book, she might have spent time considering his courting of her seriously—and nearly made a common mistake, but not one the heroines were allowed before this book. It’s not that she now lacks “firm opinions” but that she lacks the “status and power” at Kellynch to give them “the authority they deserve” (pp. 25-27). Bree’s secondary materials include an annual register of naval and military events at the time of the book, and excerpts from the poems discussed in the novel.

The editions of Persuasion resemble those of Pride and Prejudice; although far fewer (because nowhere near the best-seller), they are basically books made by people deeply sympathetic to and respectful of the novel, prepared to try to make it available for all types of readers. Unlike Mansfield Park and Emma, there are no central burning controversies or faultlines regarding how to understand the book. Many readers who love Austen love Persuasion.

Myself I own 11 editions of the novel, and one version in French and one in Italian, plus one separate edition (Chapman’s) of the cancelled chapters. At one time it was my favorite of Austen’s novels, despite its manifest flaws. Now I am (like Austen herself) a bit bothered by the heroine’s near perfection (which to my mind makes her submit to and validate what she should not, what nearly destroyed her), and I wonder whether this harmony is the result of its relatively unfinished state; she hadn’t the time for her usual gradual performance which (I agree with Virginia Woolf and many others since here) might have once again produced a book both disquieting and ultimately comforting.

RRP: £4.99
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed. / edition (17 April 2008)
ISBN-10: 0199535558
ISBN-13: 978-0199535552

Ellen Moody, a Lecturer in English at George Mason University, has compiled the most accurate calendars for Jane Austen’s work, to date. She has created timelines for each of the six novels and the three unfinished novel fragments. She is currently working on a book, The Austen Movies. Visit her website for further Austen related articles.

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