December 20, 2011 | by Jenny Hendrix
One of the difficulties of adapting Persuasion, Jane Austen’s sixth and final finished novel, for film is that so much of its drama is internal: encoded in an indirect glance, in the brush of hand against skin, the muffled thump of a heart. Passion, passed through the sieve of eighteenth-century English propriety, is visible only diffusely in the text, as coloring in the landscape or in the minutiae of gesture. The novel quietly condemns the social conventions that demand this: Austen is archly dismissive of the Regency woman’s “art of pleasing,” her “usual stock of accomplishments,” and her frivolous feminine occupations, like “cutting up silk and gold paper.”
When Anne and Frederick, Persuasion’s lovers, do finally reach one another, it’s through a remarkable letter written literally into and onto a separate conversation—an almost postmodern moment of intertextuality—that explodes such conventions:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever … I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature!
As the scholar Robert Morrison argues in a beautiful new annotated edition of Persuasion from Harvard’s Belknap Press, it’s the most romantic moment in Austen’s work. But, romantic or not, Austen’s form of kabuki can frustrate a modern preference for fervor. Charlotte Brontë, for one, found nothing to move her in her predecessor’s work. She decried Austen for her “Chinese fidelity,” writing that “what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death—this Miss Austen ignores.” But by turning a rush of blood into a blush, Austen, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “stimulates us to supply what is not there.” The result of such stimulation is amply in evidence. Of the over one hundred Austen sequels and pastiches—the most recent being P. D. James’s murderous follow-up to Pride and Prejudice—all respond, in one way or another, to something thrumming suggestively below the surface. Prudishness conceals enough to excite the critical impulse: Austen teaches a reader to read through and below and beyond the signals of her world to the fastness and fullness beneath. In a letter to her nephew James Edward Austen, Jane Austen herself famously dismissed her work as a “little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory.” As Morrison notes in his introduction, it is just this form of holding back—and what history has held back of herself—that accounts in large part for her appeal.
Austen’s surviving letters (fewer than a tenth of those she reportedly wrote) have been reissued by Oxford University Press in a new and exhaustively indexed fourth edition that’s quite wieldy despite its 667 pages. Much of this correspondence is what editor Deirdre Le Faye compares to “telephone calls … hasty and elliptical” between Austen and her older sister, friend, and confidant, Cassandra. There are also letters to her brother Frank at sea (most of those to Charles, Austen’s other sea-faring brother, have been lost), advice to her niece Fanny Knight, teasing missives to her nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh, and a few formal notes to acquaintances outside the family. The nimble, often bitingly sarcastic intelligence that animates the novels is visible in schematic in the letters: “I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead,” Austen wrote her sister, “but I am afraid they are not alive.” To Anna Austen, a niece seeking advice on a novel, Aunt Jane is more trenchant still: “Devereaux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation.’ I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; it is such thorough novel slang—and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.” Chastened, Anna ended in burning her manuscripts.
The ellipses in the Austen’s correspondence are not all the result of haste. As Austen’s fame as a writer began to grow after her death at forty-one, Cassandra destroyed a great number of her sister’s letters to excise what La Faye believes were less-than-charitable references to members of the family or discussions of physical ailment deemed inappropriate for the public eye. Cassandra had certainly read Persuasion, in which Austen’s Anne Elliot, having been given a compromising note, recalls that “seeing the letter was a violation of the laws of honour, that no one ought to be judged or to be known by such testimonies, that no private correspondence could bear the eye of others.”
In keeping with the philosophy of her sister’s creation, Cassandra not only destroyed a large fraction of the letters, but took great pains to censor those that remained, cutting away with scissors lines and even words she preferred the public not to see. The excisions are painstaking, and touchingly precise: in a long letter from March 1814, La Faye notes a space where Cassandra removed just five words. She was a bit harsher with Jane’s letter of June 1799, taking six or seven lines from two of its pages (“But I shall speak no more of—” Jane writes—and indeed she shall not) and making this reader cry out for a facsimile. On that letter is also a drawing, beside which Austen wrote: “My cloak is come home, and here is the pattern of its lace.” It’s not only the fault of Cassandra’s Scherenschnitte if Jane’s lace is all that remains.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.