So19 talks with ROBERT MORRISON

Over time and distance, a classic text can become a foreign country full of customs we don't quite understand, language we don't quite grasp, and history we don't quite comprehend. The creators of the best annotated editions are like skilled and sympathetic guides, giving us the insight and information needed to travel through a text with some of a native's ease. Financial equivalencies, historical and social context, inside jokes, textual corrections, explications of references and rituals, illustrations that help us visualize and connect: in offering all this and more, an annotated edition is both a wonderful companion to a classic text and a delight all its own. Today, we're delighted to share an interview with Robert Morrison about the edition of Jane Austen's Persuasion he edited and annotated for Harvard University Press. A specialist in 19th-century literature and culture, Morrison is Full Professor and Queen's National Scholar at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario; in addition to the annotated Persuasion, his work includes The English Opium-Eater, a biography of Thomas De Quincey that appeared in the U.S. from Pegasus Books and was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. (Our interview with him on De Quincey and the book appears here.) Beautifully annotated, illustrated, and designed, Morrison's annotated Persuasion has become my favorite edition of one of my very favorite books; in a chat that I'm sure will enhance your own appreciation of both Austen and the annotation process, So19 is delighted to talk with him today. —SF

So19: Before we chat about this particular edition of the book, let’s talk about Austen and Persuasion generally. You’ve commented that you consider the book Austen’s best. Tell us why?

RM: The short answer is, “Wentworth’s letter at the end.” To me, this is the most moving moment in all of Austen. Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth love each other, but they have also—for a variety of good and not-so-good reasons—hurt each other badly. The letter marks the moment when they are reunited, and after seven lost years can finally begin their future together.

The somewhat longer answer is that, while all of Austen’s novels examine the restrictions and expectations that thwart female desire, Persuasion is her most impassioned treatment of the subject, though this is too often overlooked. It is still a critical commonplace, for example, to compare Austen to Charlotte Brontë and/or Emily Brontë, and find her wanting. Austen is working, to be sure, in a quieter register, but her insights are every bit as searching and substantial. Persuasion is a ghost story and a lament, and in it—more than in any other novel she wrote—Austen paves the way for the Brontës and for the countless other authors who wrote of female despair and injustice across the nineteenth century and far beyond. The biographer and novelist Julia Kavanagh made this point long ago and with great clarity. Persuasion, she argued in 1862, contains “the first genuine picture of that silent torture of an unloved woman, condemned to suffer thus because she is a woman and must not speak, and which, many years later, was wakened into such passionate eloquence by the author of Jane Eyre. Subdued though the picture is in Miss Austen’s pages, it is not the less keen, not the less painful.”

So19: Can you tell us how you ended up with the chance to annotate

RM: My job, like most jobs, has good days and bad days. When you are an English professor and the commissioning editor at Harvard University Press phones to ask if you might be interested in editing an Austen novel, that’s a good day. During our first call we had a great chat about nineteenth-century British and American literature, the first, as it turns out, of many great chats. When we spoke more specifically about Austen, I said I’d be happy to edit one of her novels, and especially if I could edit her greatest novel. I was told that, unfortunately, someone was already editing Pride and Prejudice. “That’s OK,” I replied. “Pride and Prejudice isn’t Austen’s greatest novel. Persuasion is Austen’s greatest novel.”

The Harvard Annotated Austen is a wonderful series. In the age of Kindle and electronic everything, I think it reminds us of the aesthetic and intellectual beauty of books, and the irreplaceable joy that comes with holding and reading them. Both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by the way, are introduced and annotated in the Harvard series by Patricia Meyer Spacks, who did a brilliant job, and who gave me a lot to live up to.

So19: As the editor of this annotated edition, you had to make decisions about the text of the novel, from the version of the book right down to a few usages that are tiny but often debated. Could you talk a bit about that process, generally and as it involved Persuasion in particular?

RM: In terms of which text to use, the choice in the case of Persuasion is straightforward. There is no manuscript of the novel in its present state, and Austen died (just forty-one years old) before it was sent to the press. Nothing is known of the proofs, though it seems probable that they were checked by Austen’s sister Cassandra and her brother Henry. The only legitimate text of the novel, then, is the first published version, which appeared in December 1817 as Volumes 3 and 4 of a four-volume set that was dated 1818 on the title page, and that featured Northanger Abbey as Volumes 1 and 2.

In terms of the text itself, however, the situation is more problematic. I made a number of emendations and corrections to the text, many—though not all of them—noted by previous editors. For example, the 1818 text reads “Lady Russell loved the mall.” Clearly this is a printer’s error, and like all previous editors I emended the text to “Lady Russell loved them all,” as Austen unquestionably intended (for complete details, see Appendix C in my edition).

One of the changes I introduced, though, breaks—as far as I know—from all previous editions of Persuasion. It occurs in the passage from the opening chapter that concerns Elizabeth Elliot, her cousin Mr. William Elliot, and the death of Mr. Elliot’s wife. The 1818 text reads that “she was at this present time...wearing black ribbons for his wife,” and various critics and editors have laboured hard to explain why Elizabeth would be in mourning for her estranged cousin’s dead wife. The answer, it seems to me, is that “she” is a misprint for “he,” and that in fact it is Mr. Elliot, and not Elizabeth, who is in mourning.

John E. Grant first made the case for this emendation in an article of 1983. I found his arguments convincing, and I introduced the change into my edition. In effect, it only involves removing an “s” from Austen’s text, but of course it changes the pronoun, and thus dramatically alters the meaning. It took me a long time to work up the editorial nerve to do it—to break into Austen’s text without authorization—but I believe it was a good decision, and one that for the first time prints the opening chapter as Austen intended.

So19: You include a transcription of the book’s original ending, which Austen replaced. Perhaps you could tell us about that, and what it shows about Austen’s decisions and intentions?

RM: There are several major English novels that have an “original” and a “revised” ending. William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61) are among the most famous, as of course is Austen’s Persuasion. Austen originally concluded the novel in July 1816 with two manuscript chapters, which she cancelled and replaced three weeks later with the final three chapters of the published version. Austen’s original ending “did not satisfy her,” declared her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. “She thought it tame and flat.” She was right. The reunion of Anne and Wentworth is too straightforward in the original ending, and it is without the deferral, tension, and misdirection that Austen employs to such effect in the published version. Wentworth’s letter, for instance, is not in the original ending. Austen was increasingly ill as she brought Persuasion to a close, but it is a measure of her strength and clarity of purpose as a writer that she not only discarded the flat ending, but was able to reach such a crescendo in the revision, which contains not only Wentworth’s letter but the remarkable conversation between Anne and Captain Harville that precedes it.

There is something oddly appropriate about the fact that Austen finished Persuasion, grew dissatisfied with the ending, and then thoroughly rewrote it. Persuasion is, after all, a novel about false starts, missed opportunities, and second chances. It is about—if I may adapt The Beatles—taking a sad song and making it better. That’s what happens to Anne and Wentworth in the novel. That’s what Austen did when she revised it.

The two cancelled chapters are the only portion from any of Austen’s six published novels to have survived in manuscript. Totalling sixteen leaves or thirty-two pages, the two chapters are housed in the British Library, and any editor of Persuasion needs to see them. Some passages are easy to read. Others are heavily crossed out and virtually indecipherable. Several previous editors have produced fine transcriptions, and like them I went word for word for word trying to produce the most detailed and accurate version I could. It was an amazing experience to sit in the British Library holding those pages (gently!) and working with Austen’s text in that way.

So19: The annotations and illustrations cover such a wide range of items and issues: financial equivalencies between Austen’s time and our own, literary influences on her and the book, the function and status of different types of carriages. How did you go about identifying things that might benefit from a gloss, and then making final selections of what to actually annotate? How long did the work take from start to finish?

RM: Among many other virtues, the Harvard Annotated Editions allow a lot of room for annotation. On other editorial projects I have had to trim annotation because I was (way) over the allotted word limit. Here I got to say what I wanted to say because there was the space to do so. There was room for facts, reflections, quotations, comparisons, alternative points of views, and at least one pointed aside.

A lot goes in to producing an edition of this kind. First I went through the novel word by word to generate an electronic copy of it that was exactly the same as the first published version of 1818. I read the entire novel into a tape (“First paragraph; capital ‘Sir’, capital ‘Walter’, capital ‘Elliot,’ comma...”) and then played it back slowly over headphones as I sat in the reading room at the Houghton Library, Harvard, with the 1818 edition of the novel in front of me.

Once I had my text established, and had made decisions on emendations and corrections, I went through the novel again and identified everything that I thought needed annotation. Then came the enormous task of actually producing the annotation. Once that was completed, it remained to travel to London to transcribe the manuscript chapters, choose the illustrations (and there are over one hundred beautiful color illustrations in this edition), produce the captions for the illustrations, and compile a list of “Further Reading.” My last task—in what I think of as this first phrase—was to write the Introduction, in which I tried to bring everything together in a way that was fresh and compelling.

The entire edition was then sent to Harvard University Press, where in-house editors and at least two external readers went over everything with a fine-tooth comb. When they were done, it all came back and the second phase began, which involved going through the readers’ reports, pondering everything that had been pointed out (I had excellent readers), and working through from top to bottom one final time, checking the text, incorporating reader suggestions, rethinking ideas, and trying to polish, hone, excise, and enliven. All told, the edition was about two years of work on-and-off, and then a further year when all my available research time was devoted almost exclusively to it.

So19: Your Introduction mentions a fascinating bit of synchronicity: that Austen began the novel that became Persuasion the same day—August 8, 1815—that the Times of London announced Napoleon’s impending exile on St. Helena. A textual note also mentions that the period of the novel coincides with Napoleon’s first exile. With both, you reminded me that Persuasion is a novel informed not just by a general admiration for the Navy, as has often been discussed, but also by a climate of military and political upheaval….in some ways, one not unlike our own.

RM: I have often thought that if I were to write a screenplay of Persuasion, it would begin with a fierce battle at sea, just so—right from the start—the audience had a clear idea of where Frederick Wentworth was while Anne wasted away thinking of him, how anxious she must have been as she read newspaper reports about naval battles and the progress of the war, and how wide and dangerous Austen knew the world to be. In the annotations and in the illustrations, I tried to foreground the importance in the novel of the navy, and to show the ways in which the love story takes place against a backdrop of war, which upon ambitious men like Wentworth thrust both brutality and opportunity.

The great British literary critic V. S. Pritchett is very good on this point. “Our perfect novelist of comedy, Jane Austen, is often presented as an example of the felicity of living in a small, cozy world, with one’s mind firmly withdrawn from the horror outside,” he writes in George Meredith and English Comedy (1970). “This has always seemed to me untrue. I think of her as a war-novelist, formed very much by the Napoleonic wars, knowing directly of prize money, the shortage of men, the economic crisis and change in the value of capital.”

I have to add, just as an aside, that Pritchett was born on December 16, 1900. That’s the same day as Austen, but exactly 125 years later. Austen has fun with this date in Persuasion itself when she writes that Mary Elliot and Charles Musgrove were “married Dec. 16, 1810.” It is one of several private jokes in the novel.

So19: I’ve had a great affection for annotated editions of classic books ever since being given William S. Baring-Gould’s magisterial two-volume annotated Sherlock in my early teens. As that book taught me, the job of an annotating editor isn’t just to define, contextualize, or otherwise explain; instead, since the editor’s notes are often right beside the original text, he or she also has to engage and even entertain. Baring-Gould was dealing with what was really “pulp fiction,” albeit beloved pulp fiction, but on this project, you worked with one of the great prose stylists in English literature. Was it intimidating to know you were sharing the page with her? How if at all did your awareness of this shape the way you approached the annotations?

RM: Yes, frankly, it was intimidating! I had done lots of editing prior to this project, but always using either endnotes (where you say to the reader, in effect, “I’ll be at the back if you need me”) or footnotes (where you share the page with the author, but are consigned to a decidedly secondary position). Both systems have advantages and disadvantages, but both make it clear that the author is first and the editor is second. That seems very appropriate to me.

But with the Annotated Editions, it is markedly different. The commentary is much more prominent, as it appears in the margins of the page and runs directly parallel to Austen’s text. It’s virtually impossible to ignore! I found this an exciting challenge. In endnotes and footnotes it is often possible, even desirable, to deliver the information in short, crisp sentences or half-sentences: “sirname: obsolete spelling of ‘surname’,” for example, or “insensible: not sensitive.” None of my annotation in Persuasion, however, takes this form. Everything is in complete sentences, and the aim throughout is to have the commentary serve as a kind of highly readable guide or companion. I have tried to put my annotation in active and immediate dialogue with Austen, rather than in a relationship that is much more intermittent and remote. I hope it enables readers to enjoy a more intimate relationship with Persuasion, and to move as seamlessly as possible between text, commentary, image, and caption.

So19: Your annotations helped me appreciate again, or anew, the wonderful subtleties of Austen’s novel. There are so many small, precise clues to things like a character’s status, and also to a character’s feelings. Do you have any favorites among these—any subtleties of which you became aware as you looked at the text so closely?

RM: One of the reasons I chose to edit Persuasion is because I thought I knew it quite well. But I learned all kinds of things about the novel during the editing process. Sometimes people say that if you want to understand a work, you should teach it. That’s true, but if you really want to explore a text, edit it. For me, the process always brings information and ideas to light that I had missed in previous readings, no matter how thorough I thought I had been. Done well, editing makes you stop and think at virtually every turn. It is as close as you can come to actually walking in the footsteps of the writer.

I have a number of favorite notes. I like the ones that highlight Austen’s sense of humour. In Chapter Eight, Mrs. Croft describes her delight in travelling with her husband aboard his warship, and declares that she knows “nothing superior to the accommodations of a man of war,” an observation which, as I point out in the note, contains an amorous pun. I like the notes that reveal Austen’s intimate knowledge of social convention. In Chapter One, she writes that Elizabeth Elliot has for thirteen years been “walking immediately after Lady Russell out of all the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms in the country.” I wanted to know why exactly Elizabeth followed Lady Russell. Charles Roger Dodd’s A Manual of Dignities, Privilege, and Precedence (1843) gave me the answer: “the daughter of a baronet ranks below the wife of a knight.”

Perhaps the notes I like most, though, are those which examine the highly nuanced ways in which Austen develops character and advances plot. In Chapter Twelve, a distressed Captain Wentworth speaks to Charles Musgrove shortly after Louisa Musgrove has fallen on the Cobb. Who of the party will stay behind in Lyme Regis to attend Louisa? Wentworth wants to refer to “Miss Anne Elliot” as a possibility. But he does not. In a heated moment, and with a dawning sense of her worth, he forgets formality and calls her “Anne”—“no one so proper, so capable as Anne!” It is a burst of emotion that breaches decorum, and that reveals how close he still feels to her, despite his protestations to the contrary.

So19: What are you working on now?

RM: I’m writing a book on the British Regency. As many of your readers will know, this period began in February 1811 when the Prince of Wales (whom Austen detested!) replaced his violently insane father George III as the sovereign de facto, and it ended in January 1820, when George III died and the Prince Regent became king as George IV. No decade in British history is to me as fascinating as the Regency, and the book explores its astonishing energy and variety in chapters that range from war, sex, technology, sport, and the Royal Family to crime, entertainment, science, exile, and celebrity. It is a big and very exciting project for me, and one that is rooted in my work on Austen, and in my attempts to think about her relationship to the age in which she wrote.

The book will be published by Norton in North America and Atlantic in Britain and the rest of Europe. Austen, Lord Byron, the Regent, and the Duke of Wellington are at its heart. Swirling round them are Mary and Percy Shelley, Beau Brummell, John Keats, J. M. W. Turner, Edmund Kean, Hannah More, Leigh Hunt, Maria Edgeworth, and Walter Scott, among many others. Stay tuned!

A manuscript page from Jane Austen's  Persuasion; the chapters
in this version were later replaced by a revision.
Manuscript in the collection of the British Library.