Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record

Chapter XVIII

Persuasion

1815-1816

So far as we know, Jane went to London in 1815 perfectly sound in health. Her remark to Cassandra on her enjoyment of the muggy, unwholesome weather is written with the security of a person accustomed to be free from bodily ailments, and expecting that condition of things to continue. But, alas! we must look upon this visit, which seemed to mark the highest point in her modest fame, as marking also a downward stage in her career as regards both prosperity and health. Perhaps the excitement of the publication of Emma, and probably the close attention on the sick-bed of her brother which coincided with it--possibly even the muggy weather which she praised so highly--combined to diminish her vigour, and to sow the seeds of a disease, the exact nature of which no one seems ever to have been able to determine. These, however, were not the only disquieting circumstances which surrounded her. In the following March her favourite brother, Henry, was declared a bankrupt; and there are one or two indications of her being aware that all was not well with the firm in the autumn. The months which intervened while this catastrophe was impending must have been very trying to one already weakened by all that she had gone through. More agreeable associations, however, arose from the success of Emma. There was, for instance, a pleasant exchange of letters with the Countess of Morley, a lady of some literary capacity, to whom Jane had sent a copy of Emma, and who expressed her thanks and admiration in very warm terms. The author in her turn, speaking of Lady Morley's approval, says: 'It encourages me to depend on the same share of general good opinion which Emma's predecessors have experienced, and to believe that I have not yet, as almost every writer of fancy does sooner or later, overwritten myself.'

The end of March brought a still more flattering tribute to Jane's growing fame, in the shape of an article on Emma in the Quarterly Review. The Review, though dated October 1815, did not appear till March of the following year,[311] and the writer of the article was none other than Sir Walter Scott.[312]

The honour of an article in the Quarterly was no doubt mainly due to the fact that Jane had published her latest book with Mr. Murray, its owner. Though the praise contained in the article would scarcely satisfy an enthusiastic admirer of her works,[313] Miss Austen felt she had no cause to complain. In thanking Mr. Murray for lending her a copy of the Review, she writes:--

The authoress of Emma has no reason, I think, to complain of her treatment in it, except in the total omission of Mansfield Park. I cannot but be sorry that so clever a man as the Reviewer of Emma should consider it as unworthy of being noticed. You will be pleased to hear that I have received the Prince's thanks for the handsome copy I sent him of Emma. Whatever he may think of my share of the work, yours seems to have been quite right.

The fact that she was honoured with a notice in the Quarterly did not prevent the author from collecting and leaving on record the more domestic criticisms of her family and friends.

OPINIONS OF Emma.

Captain F. Austen liked it extremely, observing that though there might be more wit in P. and P. and an higher morality in M. P., yet altogether, on account of its peculiar air of Nature throughout, he preferred it to either.

Mrs. Frank Austen liked and admired it very much indeed, but must still prefer P. and P.

Mrs. J. Bridges preferred it to all the others.

Miss Sharp.--Better than M. P., but not so well as P. and P. Pleased with the heroine for her originality, delighted with Mr. K., and called Mrs. Elton beyond praise--dissatisfied with Jane Fairfax.

Cassandra.--Better than P. and P. but not so well as M. P.

Fanny K.--Not so well as either P. and P. or M. P. Could not bear Emma herself. Mr. Knightley delightful. Should like J. F. if she knew more of her.

Mr. and Mrs. James Austen did not like it so well as either of the three others. Language different from the others; not so easily read.

Edward preferred it to M. P. only. Mr. K. liked by everybody.

Miss Bigg.--Not equal to either P. and P. or M. P. Objected to the sameness of the subject (Matchmaking) all through. Too much of Mrs. Elton and H. Smith. Language superior to the others.

My Mother thought it more entertaining than M. P., but not so interesting as P. and P. No characters in it equal to Lady Catherine or Mr. Collins.

Miss Lloyd thought it as clever as either of the others, but did not receive so much pleasure from it as from P. and P. and M. P.

Fanny Cage liked it very much indeed, and classed it between P. and P. and M. P.

Mrs. and Miss Craven liked it very much, but not so much as the others.

Mr. Sherer did not think it equal to either M. P. (which he liked the best of all) or P. and P. Displeased with my pictures of clergymen.

Miss Bigg, on reading it a second time, liked Miss Bates much better than at first, and expressed herself as liking all the people of Highbury in general, except Harriet Smith, but could not help still thinking her too silly in her loves.

The Family at Upton Gray all very much amused with it. Miss Bates a great favourite with Mrs. Beaufoy.

Mr. and Mrs. Leigh Perrot saw many beauties in it, but could not think it equal to P. and P. Darcy and Elizabeth had spoilt them for anything else. Mr. K., however, an excellent character; Emma better luck than a matchmaker often has; pitied Jane Fairfax; thought Frank Churchill better treated than he deserved.

Countess Craven admired it very much, but did not think it equal to P. and P. which she ranked as the very first of its sort.

Mrs. Guiton thought it too natural to be interesting.

Mrs. Digweed did not like it so well as the others: in fact if she had not known the author would hardly have got through it.

Miss Terry admired it very much, particularly Mrs. Elton.

Henry Sanford--very much pleased with it--delighted with Miss Bates, but thought Mrs. Elton the best-drawn character in the book. Mansfield Park, however, still his favourite.

Mr. Haden--quite delighted with it. Admired the character of Emma.

Miss Isabella Herries did not like it. Objected to my exposing the sex in the character of the heroine. Convinced that I had meant Mrs. and Miss Bates for some acquaintance of theirs. People whom I never heard of before.

Mrs. Harriet Moore admired it very much, but M. P. still her favourite of all.

Countess of Morley delighted with it.

Mr. Cockerell liked it so little that Fanny would not send me his opinion.

Mrs. Dickson did not much like it--thought it very inferior to P. and P. Liked it the less from there being a Mr. and Mrs. Dixon in it.

Mrs. Brandreth thought the third volume superior to anything I had ever written--quite beautiful!

Mr. B. Lefroy thought that if there had been more incident it would be equal to any of the others. The characters quite as well-drawn and supported as in any, and from being more every-day ones, the more entertaining. Did not like the heroine so well as any of the others. Miss Bates excellent, but rather too much of her. Mr. and Mrs. Elton admirable and John Knightley a sensible man.

Mrs. B. Lefroy ranked Emma as a composition with S. and S. Not so brilliant as P. and P. nor so equal as M. P. Preferred Emma herself to all the heroines. The characters, like all the others, admirably well drawn and supported--perhaps rather less strongly marked than some, but only the more natural for that reason. Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Elton, and Miss Bates her favourites. Thought one or two of the conversations too long.

Mrs. Lefroy preferred it to M. P., but liked M. P. the least of all.

Mr. Fowle read only the first and last chapters, because he had heard it was not interesting.

Mrs. Lutley Sclater liked it very much, better than M. P., and thought I had 'brought it all about very cleverly in the last volume.'

Mrs. C. Cage wrote thus to Fanny: 'A great many thanks for the loan of Emma, which I am delighted with. I like it better than any. Every character is thoroughly kept up. I must enjoy reading it again with Charles. Miss Bates is incomparable, but I was nearly killed with those precious treasures. They are unique, and really with more fun than I can express. I am at Highbury all day, and I can't help feeling I have just got into a new set of acquaintance. No one writes such good sense, and so very comfortable.'

Mrs. Wroughton did not like it so well as P. and P. Thought the authoress wrong, in such times as these, to draw such clergymen as Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton.

Sir J. Langham thought it much inferior to the others.

Mr. Jeffrey (of the Edinburgh Review) was kept up by it three nights.

Miss Murden.--Certainly inferior to all the others.

Captain C. Austen wrote: 'Emma arrived in time to a moment. I am delighted with her, more so I think than even with my favourite, Pride and Prejudice, and have read it three times in the passage.'

Mrs. D. Dundas thought it very clever, but did not like it so well as either of the others.

* * * * *

We do not know how Mr. Jeffrey's involuntary tribute of admiration was conveyed to the author, but we are sure she must have valued it very highly. It was not the first time she had collected a miscellaneous set of opinions on her work. The two following critiques on i>Mansfield Park--apparently from two ladies of the same family--will illustrate the sort of want of comprehension from which the author had to suffer when she got outside the limits of her own immediate circle.

Mrs. B.--Much pleased with it: particularly with the character of Fanny as being so very natural. Thought Lady Bertram like herself. Preferred it to either of the others; but imagined that might be want of taste, as she did not understand wit.

Mrs. Augusta B. owned that she thought S. and S. and P. and P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M. P. better, and having finished the first volume, flattered herself she had got through the worst.

Meanwhile, the banking-house of Austen, Maunde, and Tilson, had closed its doors; and on March 23, 1816, Henry Austen was declared a bankrupt: the immediate cause of the collapse being the failure of an Alton bank which the London firm had backed. No personal extravagance was charged against Henry; but he had the unpleasant sensation of starting life over again, and of having caused serious loss to several of his family, especially his brother Edward and Mr. Leigh Perrot, who had gone sureties for him on his appointment as Receiver-General for Oxfordshire. Jane herself was fortunate in losing no more than thirteen pounds--a portion of the profits of Mansfield Park.[314]

Henry Austen possessed an extraordinary elasticity of nature which made a rebound from depression easy--indeed, almost inevitable--in his case. He returned at once to his original intention of taking Orders, as if the intervening military and banking career had been nothing more than an interruption of his normal course. Nor was it merely perfunctory performance of clerical duties to which he looked forward: he was in earnest, and began by making use of his former classical knowledge to take up a serious study of the New Testament in the original language. He seems to have been in advance of his age in this respect; for when he went to be examined by the Bishop, that dignitary, after asking him such questions as he thought desirable, put his hand on a book which lay near him on the table, and which happened to be a Greek Testament, and said: 'As for this book, Mr. Austen, I dare say it is some years since either you or I looked into it.'

Henry Austen became in time an earnest preacher of the evangelical school, and was for many years perpetual curate of Bentley, near Alton. He did not marry the 'Hanwell favourite,' but found a wife after some years in Miss Eleanor Jackson, who survived him.

It must have been somewhere about this time that Jane Austen succeeded in recovering the MS. of Northanger Abbey. An unsuccessful attempt to secure the publication of the novel in the year 1809 has already been noticed; but we learn from the Memoir that after four works of hers had been published, and somewhat widely circulated, one of her brothers (acting for her) negotiated with the publisher who had bought it, and found him very willing to receive back his money, and resign all claim to the copyright. When the bargain was concluded and the money paid, but not till then, the negotiator had the satisfaction of informing him that the work which had been so lightly esteemed was by the author of Pride and Prejudice.[315]

Meanwhile, Jane had been for some months engaged on Persuasion. It was begun before she went to London in the autumn of 1815 for the publication of Emma; but that visit and all that happened to her during the winter must certainly have interrupted its composition, and possibly modified its tone. It is less high-spirited and more tender in its description of a stricken heart than anything she had attempted before.

In May, Cassandra and Jane left Chawton to spend three weeks at Cheltenham, stopping with their brother at Steventon, and with the Fowles at Kintbury on the way, and again at Steventon on their return. Jane must have been decidedly out of health, for the change in her did not escape the notice of her friends. But whatever was the exact state of her health during the first half of this year, it did not prevent her from being able, on July 18, to write 'Finis' at the end of the first draft of Persuasion; and thereby hangs an interesting tale, which we cannot do better than relate in the words of the Memoir.

The book had been brought to an end in July; and the re-engagement of the hero and heroine effected in a totally different manner in a scene laid at Admiral Croft's lodgings. But 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. But such depression was little in accordance with her nature, and was soon shaken off. The next morning she awoke to more cheerful views and brighter inspirations; the sense of power revived; and imagination resumed its course. She cancelled the condemned chapter, and wrote two others, entirely different, in its stead. The result is that we possess the visit of the Musgrove party to Bath; the crowded and animated scenes at the White Hart Hotel; and the charming conversation between Captain Harville and Anne Elliot, overheard by Captain Wentworth, by which the two faithful lovers were at last led to understand each other's feelings. The tenth and eleventh chapters of Persuasion, then, rather than the actual winding-up of the story, contain the latest of her printed compositions--her last contribution to the entertainment of the public. Perhaps it may be thought that she has seldom written anything more brilliant; and that, independent of the original manner in which the dénouement is brought about, the pictures of Charles Musgrove's good-natured boyishness and of his wife's jealous selfishness would have been incomplete without these finishing strokes. The cancelled chapter exists in manuscript. It is certainly inferior to the two which were substituted for it; but it was such as some writers and some readers might have been contented with; and it contained touches which scarcely any other hand could have given, the suppression of which may be almost a matter of regret.[316]
For the cancelled chapter in Persuasion, and for other posthumous writings of the author, we will refer our readers to the second edition of the Memoir. They will not fail to note the delicate touches put to the characters of the Crofts by the Admiral's triumph over the servant who was 'denying' Mrs. Croft, and by the frequent excursions of husband and wife together 'upstairs to hear a noise, or downstairs to settle their accounts, or upon the landing to trim the lamp.' But the added chapters take one altogether into a higher province of fiction, where the deepest emotion and the most delicate humour are blended in one scene: a scene that makes one think that, had its author lived, we might have had later masterpieces of a different type from that of their predecessors.

Persuasion is of about the same length as Northanger Abbey, and it seems natural to suppose that there was some purpose in this similarity, and that the two works were intended to be published together--as in the end they were--each as a two-volume novel. She certainly contemplated the publication of Northanger Abbey (which at that stage bore the name of Catherine) after she had recovered it in 1816, and when she wrote the 'advertisement' which appears in the first edition of the book. Yet afterwards she seems rather to have gone back from this intention. Writing to Fanny Knight, March 13, 1817, she says:--

I will answer your kind questions more than you expect. Miss Catherine is put upon the shelf for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out; but I have a something ready for publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence. It is short--about the length of Catherine. This is for yourself alone.
Catherine is of course Northanger Abbey, and the 'something' is Persuasion. She returns to the latter in writing again to Fanny, March 23, telling her she will not like it, and adding 'You may perhaps like the heroine, as she is almost too good for me.'

Two remarkable points in these extracts are: the statement that Persuasion was 'ready for publication,' but was not to appear for a twelvemonth, and the idea that the character of the heroine was, as it were, imposed upon the author by an external force which she was powerless to resist. The intended delay in publishing Persuasion shows how unwilling she was to let anything go till she was quite sure she had polished it to the utmost: and we may imagine that, had health returned, the one comparatively dull and lifeless part of the book--the long story of Mrs. Smith--would have been somehow or other brought to life by touches which she knew so well how to impart.

As for the doubt about publishing Catherine at all, it was not unnatural. She might reasonably hesitate to put an immature work by the side of her most mature: she might (and we know that she did) feel that the social usages of sixteen years ago, which she was describing in this tale, were no longer those of the day; and it was possible that a satire on Mrs. Radcliffe was not what the public now wanted. The members of the Austen family, who managed the publication of her novels after her death, thought differently; and we are grateful to them for having done so.

Had she followed all the advice given her by her friends, she would have produced something very different from either Northanger Abbey or Persuasion. It must have been in the course of the year 1816 that she drew up the following 'plan of a novel, according to hints from various quarters,' adding below the names of the friends who gave the hints.

Scene to be in the country. Heroine, the daughter of a clergyman[317]: one who, after having lived much in the world, had retired from it, and settled on a curacy with a very small fortune of his own. He, the most excellent man that can be imagined, perfect in character, temper, and manners, without the smallest drawback or peculiarity to prevent his being the most delightful companion to his daughter from one year's end to the other. Heroine,[318] a faultless character herself, perfectly good, with much tenderness and sentiment and not the least wit,[319] very highly accomplished,[320] understanding modern languages, and (generally speaking) everything that the most accomplished young women learn, but particularly excelling in music--her favourite pursuit--and playing equally well on the pianoforte and harp, and singing in the first style. Her person quite beautiful,[321] dark eyes and plump cheeks. Book to open with the description of father and daughter, who are to converse in long speeches, elegant language, and a tone of high serious sentiment. The father to be induced, at his daughter's earnest request, to relate to her the past events of his life. This narrative will reach through the greater part of the first volume; as besides all the circumstances of his attachment to her mother, and their marriage, it will comprehend his going to sea as chaplain[322] to a distinguished aval character about the Court; his going afterwards to Court himself, which introduced him to a great variety of characters and involved him in many interesting situations, concluding with his opinion of the benefits of tithes being done away, and his having buried his own mother (heroine's lamented grandmother) in consequence of the High Priest of the parish in which she died refusing to pay her remains the respect due to them. The father to be of a very literary turn, an enthusiast in literature, nobody's enemy but his own; at the same time most zealous in the discharge of his pastoral duties, the model of an exemplary parish priest.[323] The heroine's friendship to be sought after by a young woman in the same eighbourhood, of talents and shrewdness, with light eyes and a fair skin, but having a considerable degree of wit[324]; heroine shall shrink from the acquaintance. From this outset the story will proceed and contain a striking variety of adventures. Heroine and her father never above a fortnight together in one place[325]: he being driven from his curacy by the vile arts of some totally unprincipled and heartless young man, desperately in love with the heroine, and pursuing her with unrelenting passion. No sooner settled in one country of Europe than they are necessitated to quit it and retire to another, always making new acquaintance, and always obliged to leave them. This will, of course, exhibit a wide variety of characters, but there will be no mixture. The scene will be for ever shifting from one set of people to another; but all the good[326] will be unexceptionable in every respect, and there will be no foibles or weaknesses but with the wicked, who will be completely depraved and infamous, hardly a resemblance of humanity left in them. Early in her career, in the progress of her first removal, heroine must meet with the hero[327]--all perfection, of course, and only prevented from paying his addresses to her by some excess of refinement. Wherever she goes somebody falls in love with her, and she receives repeated offers of marriage, which she always refers wholly to her father, exceedingly angry that he[328] should not be first applied to. Often carried away by the anti-hero, but rescued either by her father or the hero. Often reduced to support herself and her father by her talents, and work for her bread; continually cheated and defrauded of her hire; worn down to a skeleton, and now and then starved to death. At last, hunted out of civilised society, denied the poor shelter of the humblest cottage, they are compelled to retreat into Kamschatka, where the poor father, quite worn down, finding his end approaching, throws himself on the ground, and, after four or five hours of tender advice and parental admonition to his miserable child, expires in a fine burst of literary enthusiasm, intermingled with invectives against holders of tithes. Heroine inconsolable for some time, but afterwards crawls back towards her former country, having at least twenty narrow escapes of falling into the hands of anti-hero; and at last, in the very nick of time, turning a corner to avoid him, runs into the arms of the hero himself, who, having just shaken off the scruples which fettered him before, was at the very moment setting off in pursuit of her. The tenderest and completest éclaircissement takes place, and they are happily united. Throughout the whole work heroine to be in the most elegant society,[329] and living in high style. The name of the work not to be Emma,[330] but of same sort as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.[331]

Notes

[311] The article would, of course, have been an impossibility had the Review been published punctually, Emma not appearing till late in December 1815.

[312] From information kindly supplied by Mr. John Murray.

[313] After a short mention of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice (in which Sir Walter unkindly suggests that Lizzie Bennet in refusing Darcy 'does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer'), the critic devotes considerable space, including a long quotation, to Emma. Summing up, he declares as follows:--

'Perhaps the reader may collect, from the preceding specimen, both the merits and faults of the author. The former consist much in the force of a narrative, conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet comic dialogue, in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect. The faults, on the contrary, arise from the minute detail which the author's plan comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society.'
Had not Sir Walter found it necessary to be somewhat apologetic in commending in public anything so frivolous as a novel, his praise would probably have been more whole-hearted, as in the well-known passage in his diary, under date March 14, 1826:--
'Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen's finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!'

[314] No division or bitterness seems to have been caused in the family by these events: a remarkable proof of the strong affection which united them.

[315] Memoir, p. 130.

[316] Memoir, p. 157.

[317] Mr. Gifford.

[318] Fanny Knight.

[319] Mary Cooke.

[320] Fanny Knight.

[321] Mary Cooke.

[322] Mr. Clarke.

[323] Mr. Sherer.

[324] Mary Cooke.

[325] Many critics.

[326] Mary Cooke.

[327] Fanny Knight.

[328] Mrs. Pearse of Chilton Lodge.

[329] Fanny Knight.

[330] Mrs. Craven.

[331] Mr. H. Sanford.