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?
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 Persuasion?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.