In her books, Jocelyn Harris examines Jane Austen — down to her ‘tiniest decisions'
“I’m always trying to catch Jane Austen in the act of creation,” says scholar Jocelyn Harris, who’s scheduled to give the keynote lecture on “Reflections on ‘Persuasion’ ” at this year’s Jane Austen Summer Program. In her 2007 book, “A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s Persuasion,” — which UNC professor James Thompson calls ” the most comprehensive study of ‘Persuasion’ to date” — Harris focuses on historical, literary and naval contexts of Austen’s novel and on her revisions of the novel’s canceled chapters.
Her upcoming book, “Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen,” to be published this year, Harris argues that Austen was a political satirist with strong opinions on the mismanagement of the state, Captain Cook’s death, and the slave-trade, while her allusions to celebrities, demonstrate her worldliness and relish of rumor. In her 1989 book, “Jane Austen’s Art of Memory,” Harris shows how Austen appropriates characters and events from other authors and puts her own spin on them.
We caught up with Harris to talk about “A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression.”
Tell me about your book “A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s Persuasion.”
It all started when I realized that Captain Wentworth’s career closely followed that of the heroic Lord Nelson, and learnt a great deal by following up her naval and imperial references. But as Nelson had been knocked about a bit by the time he died, she wove into her hero aspects of the glamorous celebrity poet, Lord Byron. Further allusions to literary texts sent me chasing after her uses of them, while exploring the histories of Lyme Regis and Bath revealed why Anne Elliot regarded the seaside town as sublimely romantic and the spa as merely beautiful. The young Austen loved Bath in its heyday, but as it declined, it became the home of wounded veterans and unmarried, impoverished women making a last, desperate attempt to find a man. And that was far too close to the bone for the aging, unmarried, impoverished Austen.
What prompted you to focus on “Persuasion” specifically?
I love the light and bright and sparkling “Pride and Prejudice,” “Mansfield Park” breaks my heart, and “Emma” makes me pity as well as laugh at the handsome, clever, and rich young woman who nearly misses her best chance by believing she knows best. But “Persuasion” invites me into the mind of a woman I can utterly respect. With few options in the repressive society of her time, she remains steadfast, unlike the fickle captain. By marrying Wentworth, she escapes from the toxic systems of rank and gender that control her woman’s life. And that makes me rejoice!
What is it about “Persuasion” that makes it such a compelling novel and still relevant 200 years later?
“Persuasion” is a story of second chances, with wild swings of emotion from despair to exquisite joy that bring me to tears. Captain Wentworth is the sexiest of all Austen’s heroes, and sensitive, suffering, intelligent Anne Elliot her most sympathetic heroine. Contemporary references make the novel especially rich, while new in Austen is the moving symbolism of the seasons, and the brilliant evocation of place. Austen also handles time differently here, for by setting the novel before Waterloo, even though she wrote it after that victory, Austen maintains the agonizingly mixed tone of the novel, poised between pain and pleasure, loss and restoration. The author of “Persuasion” was dying as she composed it, and yet the novel is not autumnal, as some say, but resonant with hopes of renewal, even in herself, for “Sanditon” was already underway. Where would she have taken its satirical vigor, hilarious characterization, and joie de vivre? In this, the 200th year of her death, we can only grieve over what we have lost.
What scene in “Persuasion” encapsulates your feelings about the novel?
The last, remarkable two chapters. The crowded room, the conversation overheard by chance, the discussion of the very theme of fidelity that has permeated the novel, the dramatic intensity of Wentworth’s attention, the daring ploy of the abandoned gloves, the reading of the passionate proposal, and the extraordinary release into joy as they pace the gravel path together, oblivious to the sauntering, bustling, flirting crowd, all contribute to a peerless conclusion.
Was there an idea you had before you started writing that you changed your mind about after further analysis?
When I was younger, I probably first raced through “Persuasion” for the heart-stopping story, but I was surprised to see how Austen was merging elements of the new Romanticism with radical satires on property and rank, abundant allusions to a variety of other authors, and rich historical, cultural, geographical, and even meteorological references to create this marvelous tale.
Can you talk a little about the canceled “Persuasion” chapters, which are highlighted in your book? What can they tell us about Austen?
I read the cancelled chapters word by word, letter by letter, noting even Austen’s tiniest decisions. She crosses out, interlineates, interlineates her interlineations, turns the paper round to write along the margins, and even sticks new patches of text on to the paper with pins and wax wafers. You can observe her creating a better balance between Anne and Wentworth, for instance., simplifying the story lines, and bringing Admiral and Mrs. Croft back to their original, more admirable selves. Being a thoroughly professional writer, she acknowledged the flatness of this first version, rejected it, and replaced it in within eight days. I only regret the loss of the italicized words that Austen herself stressed, for they reveal her very voice.
Have you been to the Jane Austen Summer Program before? If not, what are you looking forward to the most?
Never! I always learn something new from people who know and love Jane Austen’s books, and there’s always something new for us all to find. To me, that’s a definition of genius.