Robert Morrison’s take on Persuasion is the second installment in our series of sumptuously illustrated and engagingly annotated editions of Jane Austen’s novels. Persuasion can be the most disorienting of Austen’s works, but, to Morrison, it’s also the most profound, and contains her most compelling and adult love story. In the exchange below, we asked Morrison about the experience of editing Austen.
Q: An acclaimed biographer of Thomas De Quincey, you’ve also served as editor of De Quincey’s collected works. How many of the techniques you developed in that role carried over to editing Persuasion: An Annotated Edition? Where did you find you needed to develop new approaches?
When I worked on De Quincey, I learned a lot about what kind of information readers are looking for, where to find reliable sources for that information, how to corroborate it effectively and accurately, and so on. Perhaps most importantly, when I edited De Quincey I worked with a large number of his manuscripts, and this proved invaluable when I came to edit Persuasion, for there are two cancelled manuscript chapters from the novel housed in the British Library, and I drew heavily on my experience of working with De Quincey’s manuscripts when I transcribed Austen’s two cancelled chapters.
There are, however, key differences between editing De Quincey and editing Austen. De Quincey is an essayist and immensely erudite. He likes to parade his knowledge, so that editing him often means annotating references to Greek and Roman history, German philosophy, British and French politics, and a wide ranging series of contemporary events. Austen, on the other hand, is a novelist, and the emphasis when editing her is frequently on her immensely insightful views on social structures, sexual politics, economic pressures, and individual obligations and aspirations. Editing her means developing a very clear sense of the difference between riding in a barouche and riding in a curricle, of what it means to command a frigate as opposed to a sloop, of the implications of being the daughter of a baronet rather than the wife of a knight, and so on. Perhaps most memorably for me, there is a moment in Chapter Twelve when Captain Wentworth is speaking to Charles Musgrove about who should remain with Louisa Musgrove after she has fallen on the Cobb. Wentworth speaks of “Mrs. Charles Musgrove,” and he ought to speak with the same formality of “Miss Anne Elliot.” But he does not. Under duress, and with a dawning sense of her worth, he calls her “Anne,” a burst of emotion that reveals how close he still feels to her. I am not even going to tell you how many times I had read the novel before I noticed this wonderful nuance! Editing Persuasion proved to me how remarkably incisive Virginia Woolf was when she observed that Austen “fills every inch of her canvas with observation” and “fashions every sentence into meaning.”
Q: The commentary-in-the-margins format of Persuasion: An Annotated Edition means that you’re sharing a page with Jane Austen. How did you approach going toe-to-toe with one of the foremost stylists in the English language?
Knowing my prose was going to appear right beside Austen’s really did change the way I approached writing my commentary. Endnotes of course mean that you are at the back of the volume. If readers want to consult you they can, but it means they have to stop reading the text, journey to the end of the book, and track down the relevant note. Some readers will choose to do this on some occasions, but many others will consult you only infrequently, if at all. Footnotes are on the same page as the text, but they are still relegated to a decidedly secondary position in relation to it, and readers consult or ignore the notes as they choose. I have to say that, in the past, I found writing endnotes or footnotes quite a comfortable position. In effect, it enables you to say to your reader, “I am here with relevant information if you want me, but I don’t want to intrude on your reading experience, and if you’d rather carry on without me, that is fine.”
In Persuasion: An Annotated Edition, however, the situation is very different. My annotation runs parallel to Austen’s text, meaning that it is a good deal harder for readers to ignore! I have found this very exciting. I have tried to use the commentary to illuminate the text as often as I can, and from as many different angles as I can, and to emphasize both what I believe to be central in Persuasion, and what the finest critics from Austen’s day to ours have written about it. I have attempted to produce a commentary that is in immediate and active dialogue with her text, rather than in a relationship that is more distant and intermittent. I hope this kind of sustained and expansive commentary enables readers to enjoy a more intimate relationship with Persuasion, and to move more seamlessly between text and annotation.
Q: Did your affection for the novel, which you’ve said you consider Austen’s best, affect your approach to producing this edition?
I feel like a bit of a crusader. In terms of popularity and influence, there are other Austen novels that have received more attention than Persuasion. But I really do consider it her finest work. It has an urgency, a range, and a relevance that seem to me to place it above her five other novels, as superb as they all are in different ways. I have tried to highlight this passion and this depth. Julia Kavanagh, one of Austen’s finest nineteenth-century critics, declares that in Persuasion “we see 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 yet by the end of the novel Wentworth hangs on Anne’s every word. She has been transformed, from faded to blooming, from nobody to somebody, and in this transformation Austen both signals a radical change from what she has written in the past, and throws searching light on the world that is to come.
Q: What do you hope to have accomplished with this edition?
First, I hope I have presented a text that is as close as possible to Austen’s intentions. In particular, in Chapter One I have emended the text so that it is Mr. Elliot, and not Elizabeth Elliot, who is in mourning for Mrs. Elliot. This passage has long vexed readers, who have wondered why Elizabeth would mourn the wife of a man she actively dislikes, and why she is the only member of her family to do so. The answer, I think, is that Austen wrote “he” but the printer set “she.” Removing the “s” clarifies the confusion. It is Mr. Elliot who is dressed in black. This is the first time the passage has been printed as Austen intended it. Second, no previous edition of Persuasion has been so thoroughly annotated, and it is my hope that the edition contains information that will appeal to all readers of the novel, from those who are coming to it for the first time to those who have read it many times. And third, Persuasion: An Annotated Edition contains over one hundred images, a total that far exceeds any other edition of the novel. I hope that readers find these illustrations bring several often-overlooked dimensions of the text vividly into view. Several pictures, for example, concern the British navy, and create a dramatic sense of the courage Wentworth needed and the kinds of military action he witnessed during his many years at sea.
On our website you can read more about our annotated editions of Austen’s novels, and explore a sample spread of pages.