Call me a Janeite. I enjoy reading just about anything about Jane Austen, which includes occasional rereading of the six novels that she published. This time, my choice fell on what has to be my favourite, Persuasion, her sixth and last complete novel, published posthumously by the executors of her estate.
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Set in the year 1814, the story revolves around two people, Anne Elliot, and Captain Frederick Wentworth, who had an engagement more than eight years earlier, which Anne was persuaded to break off, leaving some rather unresolved feelings between the pair. But now time has changed the circumstances of many who were involved in that initial relationship.
Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliot, and owner of Kellynch Hall, has managed to overspend, with the result that drastic measures are going to have to be taken if the family is going to maintain some standard of living suitable to their class. Sir Walter, a very vain and haughty man -- his only reading pleasure is gloating with quiet satisfaction over his entry in the book of the country's Baronetage -- is angry over having to give up his grand home and leasing it out to far lesser mortals as an Admiral Croft and his wife, but he will make the best of it, and go to live in the resort town of Bath with his eldest daughter Elizabeth, a woman who is just as petty and snobbish as he is. Anne, on the other hand, will remain at Kellynch to oversee the moving in of the Crofts, and then go stay with her younger sister Mary in the village of Uppercross and then join Sir Walter and Elizabeth in Bath later on in the year.
Time has not dealt gently with Anne. She is now twenty-seven, and past her bloom as they say. She has tried to deal as best she can with the memories of Captain Wentworth, and knows now that she had made the wrong choice. Indeed, she turned down two other offers of marriage -- one to Mr. Elliot, the heir of Sir Walter, and the other to Charles Musgrove, who in turn proposed to Mary. When she welcomes the new tenants to Kellynch, she is rather startled to find out that Mrs. Croft is none other than Captain Wentworth's sister, and that the good captain will be joining them soon, having made a great fortune in the wars against the French and it is rumoured, looking for a wife...
When Anne and Captain Wentworth meet again in Uppercross, Anne does not reveal her true feelings, but instead watches as it appears that Captain Wentworth is courting the two Musgrove sisters, Henrietta and Louisa, with his attention particularly fixed on Louisa -- young and prankish, with a rather reckless disregard for her own safety. When the party moves to the seaside town of Lyme, that recklessness results in tragedy for Louisa, and Anne proceeds on to Bath and her family, still wondering where she stands with Captain Wentworth. And it is in Bath where all the characters meet up again, and quite a few questions about the past and present are finally resolved.
This particular edition of the novel is an annotated version, that is, it is footnoted with references to various terms and situations that give the background to the story and the setting. Written and edited by David Shapard, an Austen scholar who has specialized in European history of the eighteenth century, this was a very informative and enlightening read for me. I came away with a greater appreciation of the novel, and a clearer view as to why the various characters behave as they do in the story.
Reading an annotated edition of a novel is rather different than the original. In this one, the original text is on the left handed pages, while the footnotes and illustrations are on the right. This makes it very easy to pause and take in a note or drawing that explains some of the more obscure passages in the text. However, it is also a distraction, and it is not an edition that I would recommend to anyone reading Persuasion for the first time. As I had read the novel several times before, I did not have a problem, and while it was slow going at times, it wasn't enough to make me give up the book in annoyance.
Instead, I discovered why the then-Lieutenant Wentworth was turned down by Anne -- due to his lack of prospects and means of setting her up comfortably as his wife -- and how the situations have been turned neatly opposite at the start of the novel. Too, answers are given as to just how did Captain Wentworth make that fortune in the wars, and why he is such an eligible bachelor now? Both Lyme and Bath are real places in England, and maps are provided that help the reader follow along in the story, from Louisa's fall to the encounters that lead to Anne and Wentworth's reunion in Bath.
Along with the footnotes, illustrations of dress and various activities, Mr. Shapard has included a timeline for the overall story, and an extensive bibliography that has a host of suggestions for further reading. I do recommend the bibliography as it provides many titles not just on the story, but also on the background and the social customs, naval history and styles of Regency England.
This is a great book for the Jane Austen fan, and one that I can cheerfully recommend. The story itself is still intact, and full of the mature subtleties of the original, and the additional information helps to give a much more rounded story for those who want to understand the nuances.
Five stars overall.
Other versions of Jane Austen's Persuasion:
Frederick Wentworth, Captain (1): None But You by Susan Kaye
Frederick Wentworth, Captain (2): For You Alone by Susan Kaye
Persuasion (Hawkins/Penry Jones)
In addition to this version of Persuasion, Mr. Shapard has also annotated Pride and Prejudice, and there will be an annotated version of Sense and Sensibility due out in Spring 2011. Both are books that I intend to be reading soon.
The Annotated Persuasion
Jane Austen, edited and annotated by David Shapard
2010; Anchor Books, Random House, Inc.