Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Winter's Persuasion

Tomorrow marks the start of our discussion in earnest of Persuasion by Jane Austen. I find myself thwarted by my efforts to create a header, but shall persevere and try to figure out what on earth I did to create the one for August at the Abbey. Meanwhile, an introduction to Persuasion is in order.

Persuasion was written by Jane Austen near the end of her life. She had fallen ill with something that caused her weakness and significant pain in her back, as well as discoloration of her skin. It was most likely Addison's disease that killed her, which is a form of tuberculosis that affects the renal system, but no definitive diagnosis has been made (nor could it be, without digging up her remains from under the floor of Winchester Cathedral, and even then it's not a sure thing). Many readers have described the novel as having an "autumnal" feel, based in part on their knowledge that Austen was nearing the end of her life, but it lacks any elegiac vibe, in my opinion. The term "autumnal" also applies because the novel begins in the autumn, and includes wonderful descriptions of nature, both in the countryside and at the seaside.

This novel picks up on some of the more romantic threads from Mansfield Park and Emma, the two other completed novels from her mature years.* The word "romantic" here does not have to do with love affairs, but with the Romantic movement that originated in the late 18th-century and included the works of the poets Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Scott and the music of composers such as Beethoven. Romanticism embraced a special fondness for nature, particularly in its picturesque, wild or unimproved forms. Similarly, the Romantic movement tended to exalt the success of the common man and to hold less respect for the ancient aristocracy. Although subtle, Austen's references to nature beginning with Mansfield Park and moving through Emma and into Persuasion place her if not firmly in, then at least straddling into the Romantic movement; her respect for the success of Navy men, based at least in part on having two of her own brothers in the British Navy, undoubtedly influenced her decision to show William Price's desire to make good in Mansfield Park and her near glorification of the Navy in Persuasion, which effectively compares and contrasts our hero, Captain Wentworth, a Naval officer made extremely rich, with Sir Walter Elliot, a foppish wastrel who has lived beyond his means.

*Austen's first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, were first written in her late teens and early twenties, and revised at several points in time. Northanger Abbey began its life as Susan, then became Catherine when she changed her main character's name, and still sat in the drawer at the time of Austen's death; a letter to her niece from the spring of 1817 indicates that she wasn't quite satisfied with the manuscript yet, and that she was keeping it "on the shelve".

With past novels, Austen gave her manuscripts some resting time, then returned for further revisions. Although none of her manuscripts survive for any of the earlier novels, information in letters written by Austen and in a chronology prepared by her sister, Cassandra, indicate that she was a dedicated reviser. Jane Austen completed the first full draft of the novel she called The Elliots on July 16, 1816. Within days, however, Austen found herself unhappy with the ending she'd crafted, and re-wrote a second ending, completing it on August 6, 1816. As was her custom, she set the manuscript aside for a rest; a few months later, she commenced work on a new manuscript, which remained unfinished at the time of her death (but is nevertheless available, either as she left it, or completed by someone else, as Sanditon).

Persuasion was, in point of fact, not 100% completed - Austen would undoubtedly have done another set of revisions before sending it to press, had she the time, strength and ability to do so. Instead, her brother Henry and sister Cassandra were left with the completed first draft of The Elliots and a much-revised (but not finished, to Austen's mind) version of Catherine, which were published together in a four-volume set (two volumes each) as Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both of which spend a considerable amount of time in Bath, as it so happens.

As I said yesterday, I've figured out a reading schedule that allows us to move through six chapters per week, with a break on Wednesdays. This means that we'll be discussing chapter 24 (or, if you prefer, Vol. II, chapter 12) on January 30th. On January 31st, we'll look at the cancelled chapter. Austen's family members kept her heavily edited and Xed out chapter, giving us some insight into how she worked and edited. It is interesting to see how hasty the first ending was, and how she corrected some of her pacing. It is worth considering that on an additional edit, she would likely have further corrected the pacing of the novel, which still has a few places near the end that feel a bit rushed. Her revisions would undoubtedly have resulted in additional length for this novel, which is only slightly longer than her shortest work, Northanger Abbey.

I hope to see you tomorrow for Chapter One. Just don't expect it too early in the day, okay?

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