Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 261-263
“Suspense and Indecision”
Austen’s Revision of Persuasion
The draft conclusion of Persuasion gains a general significance in an examination of Jane Austen’s work at large as the only surviving draft material for any of her corpus. As such, it is our only point for comparison of her work in progress and the final product; even the juvenilia survives only in clean copy, whereas solely draft works such as The Watsons and Sanditon lack a final version. That these two chapters are, perhaps not entirely fortuitously, the last of the novel permits us to examine a question close to the crux of much recent critical debate about Austen: what is the relation of her fiction to her society, and more generally of fiction as a creative space within the social space? Although critics since Sir Walter Scott and other reviewers of her time have regarded hers as a comforting and conservative voice, in the past generation feminist criticism has begun to question the conception of her work as unproblematic in its reconciliation of romance and propriety.
A contemporary reviewer was pleased to find in Persuasion a greater degree of seriousness about the tender passion than in Austen’s earlier works. The woman who penned the celebrated opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, and who signalled her awareness of the conventionality of happy endings by referring near the end of Northanger Abbey to “my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity,” had shown herself capable of an honesty about the marriage market disconcerting to the mystifications of romantic convention.1 One can as easily love a rich man as a poor, but open acknowledgement of this insight comports poorly with the economy of the companionate marriage that had evolved to reconcile the ideologies of Protestant and capitalist individualism and of female obedience. The draft chapters of Persuasion bring Anne Elliot and Wentworth quickly together for a discussion that resolves their relationship but neglects the context of their match. In revising these chapters, Austen retrieves the Musgroves from the first volume of the novel at once formally to prevent them from simply vanishing and substantively to protract the unease of “Suspense and Indecision” (263) that has previously enveloped Anne.
The revision expands 11 pages to 35, and virtually all the extra space is devoted to extending the period of suspense between Anne’s leaving Mrs. Smith, where she learns of Mr. Elliot’s questionable past, and her renewing vows with Wentworth. A tete a tete delayed only three pages in the draft (258-61) has to wait 28 in the revision (212-40). In the draft, Anne happens to pass the Crofts’ quarters, and encountering the Admiral by chance is “obliged to stop” (258) lest she seem rude. There he leaves her alone with Wentworth after requesting that the Captain ask her whether the rumour is true that she means to marry Mr. Elliot and wishes to live at Kellynch. Her statement that “There is no Truth in any such report” leads within a few lines to
He had been standing by a chair – enjoying the releif [sic] of leaning on it – or of playing with it; – he now sat down – drew it a little nearer to her – & looked, with an expression which had something more than penetration in it, something softer, – Her Countenance did not discourage. – It was a silent, but a very powerful Dialogue; – on his side Supplication, on her’s [sic] acceptance. – Still a little nearer – and a hand taken and pressed – and “Anne, my own dear Anne!” – bursting forth in the fullness of exquisite feeling – and all Suspense & Indecision were over. – They were re-united. They were restored to all that had been lost. They were carried back to the past … (263)
This scene completes the motion of sitting beside Anne, and so declaring himself, which Wentworth had begun at the concert only to be dissuaded by jealousy of Mr. Elliot. The intervening chapter having revealed Mr. Elliot as unworthy of regard, the renewal of old vows has nothing more to impede it, and so the past is restored in a rapid and full way of which Jay Gatsby would have approved.2 Plunging ahead to the emotional catharsis of the reconciliation, the draft leaves the Musgroves stranded and forgotten to unite the lovers in a scene more trite and conventional than any in Austen’s finished works. Any common heroine can have her hand squeezed and, if her name is Anne, hear a murmur of “Anne, my own dear Anne!” Miss Anne Elliot is not to be had at so cheap a rate.
Once the two begin their discussion, it and the final chapter of winding up that follows survive largely intact in the published version, but the transition disappears, to be replaced by a much longer narrative relating the Musgroves and Elliots. These two families have hitherto operated entirely separately as Anne has moved in the company of the one or the other but never of both. Now, foreshadowing her union with Wentworth, the two circles begin to interact. The result, however, is far from an idyllic image of cosmic reconciliation; on the contrary, the Elliots are as heartless as ever, with Elizabeth feeling “that Mrs. Musgrove and all her party ought to be asked to dine with them, but she could not bear to have the difference of style, the reduction of servants, which a dinner must betray, witnessed by those who had always been so inferior” (219), and in return the Musgroves feel the resentment voiced by Charles. The Musgroves are reintegrated into the book, but in a manner that only emphasizes the irreconcilable differences between the branches of an extended family. Captain Harville’s discussion with Anne of Benwick’s faithlessness to Harville’s dead sister and the disapproval by Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Musgrove of long engagements both serve as parallels to the central romance – a romance whose distinguishing features have been as a history its long interruption and as a story its suppression and indirection.
It has been traditional in romances since Classical times, of course, for lovers to be beset with difficulties and for the story to conclude as soon as they are overcome, but Persuasion is remarkable for having as its primary obstacle the man’s obstinate refusal to give any indication that he is in love with the heroine. In the expanded buildup to the reunion of the lovers, however, more traditional external constraints arise, though they are not villainous machinations but the routines of social intercourse, routines so smothering that Wentworth breaks through them only with a letter. The very busyness of the novelistic milieu, its social density, becomes obstructive to the resolution of the plot, and this obstruction is precisely what the revision adds. Elliot pride and Musgrove unimaginative kindliness that “thought only of one sort of illness” (238) can equally frustrate the resolution of romance. Love cannot simply elide eight years any more than it can make the Musgroves less prosaic or the Elliots less arrogant. Wentworth’s “ ‘It is a period, indeed! Eight years and a half is a period!’ ” (225) replaces “They were carried back to the past.” The revision replaces with a protraction of Anne’s near-Joycean “silence, cunning, and exile” the easy leap to satisfaction of the draft conclusion. No sharp-eyed Mrs. Croft spies important developments between her brother and Anne and contrives to keep herself and her husband out of their way; instead the lovers must work in solitary secrecy amid the oblivious.
Happily married to her warrior, Anne ends the later version as the earlier, without a fear but that her husband will have an opportunity to exercise his “Profession which is – if possible – more distinguished in its Domestic Virtues than in its National Importance” (273). The arch final chapter, a brief dismissal of characters good and bad into the future, survives revision virtually unchanged; it is the penultimate chapter, where the emotional climax occurs, that needs extensive rewriting and expansion. Austen knows where the story will end, but has to go back to redefine and complicate the path which leads there. Simultaneously multiplying obstructions and wrapping up loose plot ends in a manner that makes clear that the resolution portends no universal harmony, Austen’s revision of the conclusion of Persuasion complicates a simple, almost pro forma scene of mutual troth-plight into an intensely ambiguous intersection of the social and the anti-social, pitting together novel and romance as antagonists within the work.
1 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, in volume 5 of The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 250. All future references to Austen’s works will be made in the text to this edition.
2 “ ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’ ” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), 111.