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Book Review: The Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen, edited and annotated by David M. Shapard

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If Pride and Prejudice and Emma are the crowning achievements of Jane Austen’s short career, Persuasion, the last of her novels, is not far behind. Unlike these other masterpieces, it is significantly shorter, perhaps because she died before she had a chance to flesh it out in revision, perhaps because she was pursuing a greater economy of style. Moreover, it is significantly different from her other work in its content as well. It plays down the comic elements that endear her earlier work to so many. Many of the lesser characters are not fleshed out. It focuses on a heroine, Anne Elliot, who is significantly older than Austen’s other heroines, almost approaching spinsterhood in 18th century terms. If her other novels deal with young love, Persuasion is an examination of a mature emotion.

The story of Persuasion may be well known from the various films that have popped up as part of the modern Austen Renaissance. Anne Elliot, the younger daughter of an upper class family, falls in love with a naval officer, Captain Frederick Wentworth, who is visiting near her home. He wants to marry her, but she is persuaded (hence the title) by a friend of the family to turn down his proposal because of his lack of social position. He leaves to pursue his career. She goes on with her life. So far this is all back story. The actual novel begins some years later: the Elliot family in some financial straits is forced to rent out their estate. The lessee is an Admiral whose wife is the sister of Captain Wentworth. Wentworth, now wealthy, returns for a visit, and love, after some initial misunderstandings and setbacks, has its reward.

David M. Shapard’s The Annotated Persuasion is without doubt the most complete guide to the novel to date. Here you have everything you ever wanted to know about Jane Austen and this particular novel, and maybe a good deal more. Shapard’s method is to print the text of the novel on the left hand page and extensive notes to that text on the right hand page. The notes themselves include definitions of words as used in the text, explanations of 18th century social customs, identification of allusions, and even some literary interpretations. He defines words like “insensible” as unfeeling, “own” as acknowledge, and “powers” as abilities. He explains the restrictions on hunting put upon the unlanded commoners and the accomplishments young girls were taught in finishing schools. He identifies the Marlborough Buildings and explains that Gowland was a skin lotion. The specialist may find much of this material gratuitous, but certainly not all, and the general reader will welcome the information, and its placement right across the page makes it easy for the reader to glance over when he feels the need, and ignore it when he doesn’t.

Shapard’s short introduction gives the basic information about Austen’s life and career, and discusses the book in relation to the rest of her work. He includes a section with maps of the various settings, an extensive bibliography of works about the author and works about the period, and a complete chronological table of the events of the story. He also adds a number of contemporary illustrations to give the reader a sense of what the costume, architecture and furnishings of the period were like. For some reason in the Table of Contents he adds chapter titles that don’t appear in the original, although he doesn’t use them in the actual text. Perhaps they might be helpful in locating a passage if the reader didn’t have a page reference, perhaps not. Still, this text is filled with ore that will be mined by students of the novel for years to come. It is a gift for lovers of Austen’s work.

About Jack Goodstein