BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

A More Demanding Image of Jane Austen

A Revolution Almost beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s Persuasion
By Jocelyn Harris.
University of Delaware Press, 2007.
280 pages. 8 B/W illustrations.
Hardcover. $54.50.

Reviewed by Patricia Meyer Spacks.

New versions of Jane Austen abound these days. A British publisher revamps Cassandra’s drawing of her sister for book jacket purposes: more bosom, more hair, more smile. The film Becoming Jane gives us Austen as star- crossed lover, radiantly beautiful. In contrast, Jocelyn Harris’ serious re-imagining in A Revolution Almost beyond Expression invites us to contemplate a more demanding image: a novelist who writes with political awareness and extensive knowledge.

Focusing her attention on Persuasion, Harris demonstrates through investigation of a single novel the complexity and range of Austen’s allusiveness, the scrupulosity of her self-editing, the high ambition of her enterprise, and the intensity of her feeling. She writes of Austen’s response to Napoleon; her reaction to Sir Walter Scott (as novelist and as critic); her possible allusions to Lord Nelson; her treatment of Lyme and of Bath; of ancestry and of gender; her rendition of sexuality; her claim to a place among the Romantics—all this, and more. In short, she offers a series of speculations and analyses that map the operations of a novelist whose substantive as well as stylistic achievements demand our attention.

After a chapter expansively describing “Origins for Persuasion” (e.g., hostile reviews of Frances Burney’s The Wanderer that reflect negatively on older women, Austen’s correspondence with Fanny Knight concerning the young woman’s vacillations about marriage, Sarah Scott’s novel Millenium Hall: in short, elements of the novelist’s life and of her reading), Harris takes up, in two chapters, the changes Austen made in revising Persuasion. By scrupulously examining the sequence of revisions, she demonstrates how carefully Austen worked and how brilliantly she focused her points. The “exquisite discrimination of human values” for which Virginia Woolf praised her predecessor emerges clearly in Persuasion, Harris suggests, only in the final stage of revision. The critic makes the most of the rare opportunity Austen’s canceled chapters provide for tracing the novelist’s creative processes.

In subsequent sections of her study, Harris alludes to a range of Romantic poets (especially Byron), national figures, cartoonists, contemporary critics, painters, and guidebooks, as well as to Austen’s literary predecessors, in order to make her case that the novelist wrote with rich awareness of her cultural and social context. She finds partial models for Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft in Austen’s naval brothers, in Lord Nelson, and in Byronic heroes. Attending closely to the details of Persuasion, she notes the occasional feminizing of Wentworth (when he turns to Anne for guidance at Lyme, for instance) as well as of Benwick, and Anne’s “man-womanliness” as well as Mrs. Croft’s. Without claiming that Austen took contemporary poets as direct models, Harris comments on the fact that “fluidity of gender” was also common among male Romantic writers. Wentworth’s characterization draws, moreover, she argues, on Napoleon, Othello, Shakespeare’s Antony, and Captain Cook.

At first glance, and even after reading the case that Harris makes, some of her suggestions seem dubious. To claim that Wentworth resembles Othello because as “a stranger without alliance or fortune,” he occupies a position analogous to that of Shakespeare’s Moor, described as an “extravagant and wheeling stranger, ” strikes me as far-fetched: the connection depends on a single common word. Equally tenuous is the assertion that “ Wentworth most resembles Othello . . . in his conviction that all women are fickle.” Persuasion offers no evidence of any such conviction. If Wentworth evinces, on a single occasion, a “curl of his handsome mouth,” that fact hardly proves the connection Harris suggests with Byron’s Corsair, who “oft perforce his rising lip reveals.”

Even if one finds it hard to accept many of Harris’ specific claims—and questionable individual assertions abound throughout her text—her larger case about Austen’s embeddedness in her culture possesses great resonance. In one of her most compelling arguments, she demonstrates in convincing detail Austen’s complex relation to Edmund Burke’s conservative politics. Sir Walter Elliot’s flaws duplicate those that worried Burke as signs of a declining aristocracy, but Austen finally, of course, in opposition to Burke, supports meritocracy. Revealing in quite a different sense is Harris’ exploration of Austen’s treatment of Lyme—based, as this study shows, partly on the novelist’s direct experience and partly on imaginative literature. Austen’s intimate knowledge of Bath, we learn, enabled her to locate her characters precisely in relation to their social standing. Harris’ detailed account of the city (“smoggy, smelly—and noisy”) does much to explain Austen’s notorious dislike of Bath.

A work of commanding erudition, informed by intimate knowledge of Austen and of her literary, social, and political contexts, A Revolution Almost beyond Expression reminds us how many forces must combine to create a great novel. If Harris’ close concentration on possibilities sometimes leads her into implausibility, her far-ranging knowledge and her verbal energy nonetheless have generated an impressive critical work.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia, is currently teaching a Harvard freshman seminar called “Rereading Jane Austen.” Her most recent book is Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction.

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