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What you learn from reading ‘Persuasion’ footnotes

Our official reading copy of “Persuasion” is the Penguin Classics edition, but many Jane Austen fans have their own favorite copies they turn to again and again. Here are five interesting notes from David M. Shapard’s annotationed “Persuasion.” (And don’t forget: We’ve added some supplementary readings to the site, by Professor James Thompson and Jocelyn Harris.)


“This was the principle on which Anne wanted her father to be proceeding, his friends to be urging him. She considered it as an act of indispensable duty to clear away the claims of creditors with all the expedition which the most comprehensive retrenchments could secure, and saw no dignity in anything short of it. She wanted it to be prescribed, and felt as a duty.”

Footnote: “This is the first time we see Anne, the main character of the novel, actually doing or deciding on something. It is notable that what she does is to recommend self-denial and the strongest adherence to duty and conscience.”


“He is a rear admiral of the white.”

Footnote: “Rear admiral is the lowest of the three admiral ranks. The highest is full admiral, then vice admiral. Each rank had three levels, the red, the white, and the blue (in descending order), creating nine total levels. Admirals, who were promoted on the basis of seniority, started at the lowest level, rear admiral of the blue, and gradually worked their way up. Hence Admiral Croft has reached the second level of ascent.”


“There can be no doubt that Lady Russell and Anne were both occasionally thinking of Captain Benwick, from this time. Lady Russell could not hear the door-bell without feeling that it might be his herald.”

Footnote: “Doorbells were a recent phenomenon; doors at this time typically had large metal knockers. This passage is the first example of the term’s use cited by the Oxford English Dictionary. Thus Lady Russell’s having one indicates the modernity of her residence.”


“He thought her ‘less thin in her person, in her cheeks; her skin, her complexion, greatly improved — clearer, fresher. Has she been using anything in particular?’ ‘No, nothing.’ ‘Merely Gowland,’ he supposed.”

Footnote: “Gowland was a popular skin lotion of the time. It had been created in the mid-1700s by John Gowland, and promoted, first by Gowland and then by the succeeding owners of the formula, with pamphlets in which its curative properties were extolled. … It in fact contained corrosive substances that would strip away the top layer of the skin.”


“ ‘Though I came only yesterday, I have equipped myself properly for Bath already, you see,’ (pointing to a new umbrella).”

Footnote: “Umbrellas as a protection against rain had first come into significant use in the early 18th century…. In England, they caught on more slowly than in other parts of Europe and were for a while derided as odd or foreign or effeminate. But by the last decades of the century they had attained wide popularity and become a standard personal item, especially for wealthier people.”


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