4 objects highlighting the passion and perseverance of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’
It’s almost time to meet in North Carolina! Don’t forget to check out our rare-book exhibit “Persuasion: Passion and Perseverance” next Thursday. Here’s a preview with the curators. …
By Taras V. Mikhailiuk and Carlie N. Wetzel
The title of this year’s exhibit, “Persuasion: Passion and Perseverance,” points to the way we focused on Jane Austen’s thematic concerns in Persuasion. As we selected and analyzed books and manuscripts for this year’s display, we tried to show how these two impulses — passion and perseverance — form an overarching narrative in the novel. Our exhibit also highlights how these ideas in various texts fascinated Austen, drew her criticism, or invited a literary and cultural dialogue.
One of our items, a first edition of “Persuasion,” was published posthumously — probably in late 1817, even though the date on the title pageis 1818. This edition, of course, shows in what material form “Persuasion” appeared to its first readers. But the form or format of this edition is, perhaps, one of its most striking features. The novel is part of a four-volume set with “Northanger Abbey” — also published for the first time — taking up the first two volumes. “Persuasion” occupies the last two volumes, so the early audience of Austen’s novel read and perceived “Persuasion” as inseparable from its sister text, “Northanger Abbey.” It is fascinating to think how the publisher’s choice to pair the novels affected early reception of “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey,” and shaped Austen’s early literary afterlife.
A very different text, “A Log of the Proceedings of H.M. Ship Salsette” (1809-1810), expands our sense of Austen’s central concerns in “Persuasion.” Kept by the midshipman John Wood, this log showcases the details, challenges, and daily routine of the kind of life that Frederick Wentworth might have experienced, first in his junior rank and later as a ship captain in the Royal Navy.
The log also documents Lord Byron’s famous swim across the Hellespont while traveling on board the Salsette. Byron’s impressive literary output dominates Anne and Captain Benwick’s discussion of Romantic poetry. But the poet’s amazing demonstration of physical strength and endurance also parallels the novel’s interest in hard-earned, rather than inherited, status and achievement.
In contrast to the log, Debrett’s “Peerage of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland” (1822) catalogues the inherited titles bestowed by the British crown that were important in the society of Austen’s day. “Persuasion” opens with Sir Walter Elliot smugly perusing his family’s entry in the “Baronetage,” which lists Mr. William Elliot as the heir presumptive. Sir Walter is a baronet — the highest titled rank of the gentry class — but he is not a peer like Viscount Dalrymple, and thus cannot be summoned to Parliament. Sir Walter finds comfort in his title, but he squanders away his inherited wealth while Captain Wentworth works to make his fortune at sea. While Debrett’s “Peerage” exhibits a seemingly stable system of inherited privilege and wealth, the novel reveals the financial and moral decay of Britain’s aristocratic class.
Traveling handbooks were important tools for exploration in the 19th century. One of John Murray’s popular texts, “Handbook for Travellers in Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, and Somersetshire” (1869), includes descriptions of many places featured in Austen’s novels, including Lyme Regis and Bath. Murray’s guidebook even quotes Austen when introducing Lyme to attract visitors. Lyme’s popularity increased after the publication of “Persuasion” because of Louisa’s infamous fall from the steep steps of the Cobb, the semi-circular harbor wall. In an article in the “Monthly Packet,” John Vaughan observes that Tennyson, when visiting friends in Lyme, exclaimed, “Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell!” Such references to Austen’s writing show the enduring passion readers have for her characters and the places connected to her novels.
These four texts are just a preview of the items that we have chosen for this year’s exhibit. Romantic poetry, a historic map, and even a beauty advertisement, among other items, will all be on display to highlight the many literary, social, and cultural layers of passion and perseverance in the novel. Please join us in experiencing the intimate and vast, melancholy and jubilant, tender and steadfast world of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.”
About the curators
Taras V. Mikhailiuk is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow in English at UNC. His research focuses on the limits and potential of language in the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his fellow Romantic authors. Mikhailiuk also serves as the editorial intern for the Keats-Shelley
Journal. Mikhailiuk, his wife, and their four young children live in Durham, N.C.
Carlie N. Wetzel is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow in English at UNC. She earned her B.A. in English and creative writing at Colgate University. Her current research focuses on elegiac poetry from the early 19th century. Wetzel also serves as the advertising intern for the Keats-Shelley Journal.