Many years ago, when I taught my very first English literature class and I put Pride and Prejudice on the syllabus, I was absolutely delighted to discover a collection of essays called Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This wonderful book was exactly what I needed—I had just completed an MA thesis on medieval poetry and I didn’t know Austen’s novels very well. I learned a great deal from the book about how to introduce my students to Jane Austen’s world and to the pleasures of looking at the novel from a variety of different perspectives. (That year I also learned, partly through the experience of teaching Pride and Prejudice, that I wanted to apply to PhD programs so I could study Austen’s work in more detail.)
One of the essays in the collection was particularly helpful in showing how the way Elizabeth Bennet interprets the view from Pemberley can help us to understand the novel itself: as she moves from room to room and looks out the windows, it seems as if the objects she sees are “taking different positions”—but of course it’s Elizabeth who is “taking different positions,” which demonstrates “one of the novel’s central insights: that perceptions from fixed vantage points must be corrected by movement through space, as first impressions must be corrected by movement through time.” You can imagine what a pleasure it was when I met the editor of the book, and the author of that essay, Marcia McClintock Folsom, a couple of years later at my first JASNA AGM, in Colorado Springs, and how happy I have been to continue to learn from Marcia’s essays and AGM presentations, and from conversations with her about Austen’s novels.
Marcia McClintock Folsom is Professor Emeritus of Literature at Wheelock College. She’s the editor of Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Emma as well as Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and with co-editor John Wiltshire, Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Persuasion (forthcoming). Her essay “Emma: Knowing Her Mind” was published in Persuasions 38 (2017), and her analysis of “Power in Mansfield Park: Austen’s Study of Domination and Resistance” appeared in Persuasions 34 (2013). I’m very happy to introduce her contribution to “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.”
Readers have a lot of specific history about Jane Austen’s writing of Persuasion. Thanks to the note written by her sister Cassandra on the dates of composition of the novels, we know that Jane Austen began Persuasion on August 8th, 1815 and completed it on August 6th, 1816 (Minor Works, ed. Chapman, Volume 6). Readers also have the surprising added luck of the existence of a 32-page manuscript of two last chapters that Austen decided not to use as the novel’s conclusion. This manuscript, written on both sides of 16 small pieces of paper, is the only manuscript known to exist of any part of any of her published novels. That extraordinary discovery deepens our knowledge of Austen’s process and of the difficulties she experienced in writing the end of Persuasion.
August 8th, 1815, was just seven weeks after the battle of Waterloo, which ended the more than two decades of war between Britain and France. Napoleon, the French commander-in-chief, had actually resigned more than a year earlier than that battle, on April 5th, 1814, and had been sent to exile on the Isle of Elba near Italy. In March of 1815, he had escaped, and gathering an army of supporters, he had resumed the war. What followed was later called the “One Hundred Days” of new fighting, until Napoleon was decisively defeated at Waterloo, by combined British and Prussian troops. As Brian Southam points out in Jane Austen and the Navy, the day that Austen began writing Persuasion, August 8th, 1815, was the day the British newspapers announced that “Bonaparte has sailed,” exiled again, this time to St. Helena, a much more distant island in the South Atlantic, 1,200 miles off the coast of southern Africa. The time span of the novel, from “the summer of 1814” to the middle of February 1815, corresponds to the last half of Napoleon’s first exile, and the novel’s happy ending occurs before what all of Austen’s first readers would have known, that this lull in the war ended in March, fighting resumed on land, and required an immense military effort finally to defeat the French army, on June 18th, 1815, at Waterloo. Southam argues that one of Austen’s purposes in this novel was to celebrate the navy, since it had declined in prestige after the truce with the American navy in December of 1815, and since the Waterloo victory had been achieved by the army, not the navy.
The novel Austen began on the date of the beginning of Napoleon’s second exile, August 8th, 1815, is the most precisely dated of any of her novels, beginning, as she wrote, “at this present time” in “the summer of 1814” (Volume 1, Chapter 1). That summer during Napoleon’s first exile was when naval officers (still on half-pay) came home, rejoining British society, and looking for houses to rent and wives to marry. Modern editions of Persuasion often contain chronologies of the novel, usually beginning, as the novel does, with Sir Walter Elliot’s birthdate, mentioning marriages, other birthdates, and events that occur before the novel’s present, and then slowing down to trace the action month by month, week by week, and even day by day, as Austen places the novel’s present events in clear sequence through the late summer, fall and early winter of 1814 in Volume I, and December, January, and early February of 1815 in Volume II.
Austen’s own locations in the year that she was writing Persuasion are traced by John Halperin (The Life of Jane Austen). She was at Chawton in August when she began writing it, and then in early October, she moved with her brother Henry to London in order to negotiate with John Murray about the publication of Emma. She stayed longer than she had expected because Henry became seriously ill, and Jane stayed on to take care of him. At the end of October, she wrote to Cassandra that she alternated between nursing Henry and “working and writing” in a back room. By this time her family was growing worried about her health, too. Henry gradually improved, and he was well enough for Jane to return to Chawton near the end of December. There she stayed, hosting frequent family visitors in April, May, and June, still working on the novel, but taking a trip with Cassandra in May to the spa at Cheltenham to try the supposedly medicinal waters in hopes of curing whatever was the matter with her. Among the visitors to Chawton that summer was Jane’s eighteen-year-old nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, who later wrote the “Memoir” of his aunt, which tells a story of her writing the first and second versions of novel’s ending during July and August of 1816.
The manuscript of the so-called cancelled chapters of Persuasion offers more details about the dates of Austen’s writing. The first manuscript page, marked “Chap. 10,” has the date “July 8.” The manuscript of “Chapter 11,” ends with the word “FINIS” and the date of “July 18. – 1816.” This date is exactly one year before Jane Austen died. The many cross-outs and emendations, especially in the second chapter, suggest Austen’s struggle in the ten days she spent writing these chapters, as does an earlier “FINIS” she apparently wrote on July 16th. Her revision completed, Austen-Leigh recorded that “her performance did not satisfy her. She thought it tame and flat, and was desirous of producing something better. This weighed upon her mind, the more so probably on account of the weak state of her health; so that one night she retired to rest in very low spirits . . . The next morning she awoke to more cheerful views and brighter inspirations; the sense of power revived; and imagination resumed its course” (A Memoir of Jane Austen). These dates mean that Austen wrote a new Chapter X, and a new Chapter XI with the brilliant scene at the White Hart Inn, and revised and recopied her old Chapter 11, which became the new Chapter XII, in just nineteen days.
Modern editions of the novel frequently include a transcript of the so-called cancelled chapters, sometimes with a photograph of page 1 as a sample to demonstrate the problems of deciphering Austen’s handwriting and her corrections. The two chapters contain a somewhat confusing narrative, presenting a meeting of Anne and Wentworth in the Bath apartment of Crofts, where Wentworth has been set up by Admiral Croft to ask Anne if it’s true that she will marry Mr. Elliot, and if so, the Crofts will leave Kellynch so Anne and Elliot can live there. The scene is painfully awkward for both Anne and Wentworth, and Anne, who is seated, can only reply hesitatingly, and the lovers’ understanding is achieved “in a silent, but very powerful Dialogue.”
The manuscript pages of these two chapters reveal a writer resolutely striving to figure out how to end the novel, and clearly frustrated with her efforts. Scholars, starting with R. W. Chapman, and including Arthur M. Axelrad, have studied the agonizingly corrected handwritten pages found in Cassandra’s desk. Most brilliantly, Jocelyn Harris, in her meticulous reconstruction of Austen’s struggles in writing Chapter 10 and Chapter 11 of the manuscript, sorts out hundreds of choices of diction, sequencing in sentences, as well as the implied writing process and probable intention about motives in Austen’s revision of those two chapters, and the creation of the new Chapters X, XI, and XII of the novel as it was published on December 20, 1817 (A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression, 2007). Harris devotes all of her Chapter 2, “The Reviser at Work,” to an analysis of “MS Chapter 10 to Chapters X-XI (1818),” and all of her Chapter 3 to “At the White Hart: MS Chapter 11 to Chapter XII (1818).” (As Austen did, Harris uses Arabic numbers for the manuscript chapters, and Roman numerals for the published 1818 chapters.)
Setting Virginia Woolf’s comments on Austen’s writing at the beginning of her study of these remarkable pages, Harris notes that Woolf looked with a “writer’s eye” on Austen’s early fragment, “The Watsons,” and found what Austen’s finished writing rarely betrays: “pages of preliminary drudgery” that Jane Austen must have “forced her pen to go through” to change a first draft into a polished work. In studying these astonishingly hard-to-read manuscript pages, Harris actually figures out what Woolf predicted, the “suppressions and insertions and artful devices” by which Austen tried to revise her own writing. As Harris vividly documents in her book: “Jane Austen is her own best and most ruthless critic when she reworks Chapter 10 of her manuscript into Chapters X-XI of the version published in 1818.” Noting Henry James’ grudging praise of Austen’s “light felicity,” and her (to him) apparently effortless and unconscious way of writing, Harris responds vigorously: “if James could have known how hard Jane Austen worked over her manuscript, he might have acknowledged a fellow professional. The revised manuscript of Persuasion reveals no warbling thrush, no wool-gatherer, but an extraordinarily self-critical, self-conscious, and meticulous writer and rewriter.”
Harris’s book magnificently uncovers the hidden meanings of Austen’s subtle, painstaking, multiple revisions of words, sentences, and sequences in the manuscript chapters, and then her drastic rejection and cutting of all that work. Bringing a much enlarged cast to Chapter X, Austen then creates in Chapter XI the infinitely more successful scene of the lovers coming together at the White Hart Inn. Reversing their positions in the cancelled chapter, Anne is standing with Captain Harville and Wentworth is seated. Anne here speaks at length, with tact and kindness to Harville, as she ardently describes the power of a woman’s passion, even “when existence or when hope is gone.” Wentworth’s letter in response to what he partially overhears is the most passionate declaration of love in any Austen novel.
As James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote about those chapters, “Perhaps it may be thought that she has seldom written anything more brilliant.” More extravagantly, Austen’s early 20th century critic Reginald Farrer wrote in 1917, the centennial of Austen’s death: “that culminating little heartbreaking scene between Harville and Anne (quite apart from the amazing technical skill of its contrivance) towers to such poignancy of beauty that it takes rank . . . as one of the very sacred things of literature the one dares not trust oneself to read aloud” (Littlewood, Volume 2). Without indulging in such rapture, many readers would say—and I would agree with them—that the last three chapters of Persuasion really are among the most brilliant pages Austen ever wrote. Studying Austen’s writing process, as Harris unfolds it in her book, enables readers to fathom even more completely the “amazing technical skill” of the final chapters of Jane Austen’s last completed novel.
Quotations are from the Cambridge edition of Persuasion, edited by Janet Todd and Antje Blank (2006).
Thirty-second in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: Deborah Yaffe’s guest post on Captain Wentworth’s letter. I can’t quite believe the series is almost over…. Thank you to everyone who’s been following along!