Sunday, March 18, 2007

Jane Austen's "Persuasion"

Deidre Lynch is a scholar of Eighteenth-century literature and Romantic period British literature as well as the editor of Jane Austen's Persuasion for the Oxford World's Classics Series (Oxford University Press, 2004).

She put the novel to the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
Lacking (alas) a first edition of Persuasion, I've used the edition that I prepared a few years ago for Oxford's World's Classics series.

As it happens, p. 99 takes us straight to the opening of the novel's second volume and so to a moment when, as seasoned readers of early-nineteenth-century fiction, we are expecting to gear up for transition. We're at chapter 1 again, and primed for a fresh start. Persuasion, however, investigates the situation of a woman who -- older than is the norm for an Austen protagonist -- feels as if change is no longer possible. Persuaded to break off her engagement with Captain Wentworth eight years before the novel opens, Anne Elliot looks initially to be a heroine who already may have missed her only chance at a story, who is forced accordingly to live off and in memory. With the end of a long war, Wentworth returns to England and back into her social circle, but Anne won't let herself re-open the book on the past and let herself hope: "Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement." Still, Volume 1 ends with signs of change. The characters visit the seaside, Anne, revived by the change of scene, seems to start to live in the present -- and then, suddenly, there comes an accident of unexpected, frightening seriousness: Louisa Musgrove (the woman Wentworth appears to be courting) falls from atop a breakwater. As careful readers, witnessing this accident, we will have noticed how at this moment of panic, Wentworth, usually in command, now helpless, turns to Anne for assistance.

Prompted to look hard at this opening to volume 2, I'm struck by how the novel stalls just when we think we are being launched on the plot we've been reading for all along, the plot of Wentworth's and Anne's reunion. This page apparently finds Austen treading water. Her narrator tells us things like "Louisa was much the same"; "every thing was going on as well as the nature of the case admitted." On p. 99 there is little sign of Austen's jubilant wit and not much, even, of the emotional intensity that makes Persuasion's record of its heroine's inner life such a stylistic departure for Austen. Instead, the narrator keeps her distance from Anne's feelings. Page 99 sounds the theme of usefulness that is important in this novel, which locates moral value in professional men like Wentworth and not in the landed gentry: we read that Anne "had the satisfaction of knowing herself extremely useful." But by this point we are well acquainted with Anne's ethos of service and her conviction that she is not entitled to any emotion headier than "satisfaction." I read this page wanting confirmation not that Anne is useful but that she is loved.

Austen is taking her time here -- as if she wanted her readers to feel how burdensome time feels to Anne herself.
Deidre Lynch is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Indiana University.

Her many other publications include The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (University of Chicago Press), which won the Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book, and Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, editor.

Her most recent scholarly award is a 2007 John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.

--Marshal Zeringue