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Dashing in Persuasion: The Effects of a Pause.

THAT JANE AUSTEN USES THE DASH frequently throughout her works and letters is incontrovertible; why and how she uses it is the focus of this essay. By analyzing dashing in just one of her novels, specifically, the posthumously published Persuasion, I hope to illustrate a methodology that she used over her writing career. Persuasion also affords us the rare comparison of an original draft of chapters with the revised, print versions. I will argue that, while Austen employs the dash for a variety of grammatical and dramatic purposes, three principal uses can be charted and that doing so enriches our reading experience. (1) Those uses are a means of injecting intense emotion into the prose that might elude a surface reading; as a method for replicating the disjointed rhythms of actual speech or thought; and as a visual transitional device that disrupts the orderly marching of black words across a white surface, signaling a shift in thought.

Although William Gifford, publisher John Murray's editor, wrote of Austen's manuscripts that "there are many short omissions which must be inserted," those insertions do not seem to have included dashes (Sutherland, "Dealings" 123). As one reviews the autograph manuscripts alongside a printed version of same, dashes consistently disappear. While we understand that Austen often used the dash as a stand-in for paragraphing, saving space and thus using less costly paper, we should find it less understandable when eliminating other dashes lightens Austen's emotional palette. That scholars have differed over whether a certain period in the first paragraph of Persuasion should be changed to a comma suggests the importance of punctuation in her novels. (2)

This is especially so since, as Kathryn Sutherland has noted in her extensive analysis of the few extant holographic texts, many of Austen's "rhetorical dashes and emphases have ... been stripped systematically" in the printed texts (Textual Lives 159). Sutherland argues that what Austen is doing is "punctuating for speech" (Interview) and that her practice "takes us closer to the speaking voice" (Kennedy). This infusion of the conventions of drama perhaps suggests why Austen's novels lend themselves so successfully to varied stage, television, and film adaptations. Yet the problems raised by the printer's role should not hinder but rather impel us to read Austen better by attending to the novels' remaining dashes in prose and speech. Such an analysis allows the often confused motives of Austen's characters and the perceptive narrator's judgments to become more readily understood.

In the literature of the long nineteenth century, punctuation was used much more frequently than it is today. Austen's aggressive, unambivalent use of the dash reflects her cultural moment, as well as her own "expressive style" (Southam vi). In Austen's age, punctuation mattered. Although many, even in that age, used the dash haphazardly, Austen used it precisely. As Claudia L. Johnson points out in the context of her discussion of Mansfield Park, Austen wrote in long paragraphs and often didn't indent for new speakers or paragraphs (xvii). (3) Johnson acknowledges what any scholar dealing with Austen's texts must: that the paucity of autograph manuscripts means that many questions about the differences between manuscripts and printed editions, between what Austen intended and editors decided, remain unanswered. With respect to dashes, in particular, Johnson notes that "[i]n the manuscripts Austen generally uses a period followed by a long dash (.--) for an endstop. Did she expect printers to delete the dashes, or did these kinds of dashes signify in some particular way? The printed texts are inconsistent" (xvii, emphasis added).

That inconsistency fosters guessing at what editors reasoned in their processes. Clearly Austen's editors felt that more paragraphing was needed, as well as more definitive sentence endings. But it's also possible that the higher number of dashes in the manuscripts results from authors like Austen expecting the publishing house's conventional editing. Thus, she might have sent, to use Gifford's word, "carelessly" and more densely dashed manuscripts to her printers, knowing that a certain percentage would be eliminated or, "in the transformation of manuscript into print," made into another form of punctuation (Sutherland, "Dealings" 123, 124). R. W. Chapman, too, occasionally left dashes on the floor in his transcription of Austen's manuscripts. (4)

In the autograph manuscripts, Austen uses dashes for ending a sentence, as a paragraph break, to signal a shift in topics, in place of a comma, and as a pause within dialogue or narration. But most of those left standing by compositors in the printed works are used to "signify" in the three principal ways stated above and illustrated herein. While there may be "no precise rules about punctuation," Austen uses the dash purposefully, and not just in place of commas or periods (Thomas 161). (5) The dashes left standing by printers carry great meaning. Thus, we should pay more attention to her textual practices.

An analysis of the manuscript version of Persuasions ending against the printed one provides a good forum in which to discern Austen's approaches to the dash (despite the absence of a manuscript of her final edit). Her use of the dash in the manuscript's two final chapters is frequent; she uses it more than 250 times. In the printed version there is more paragraphing but considerably less dashing. Thus, her original text looks very much like her letters, suggesting a type of free writing. Austen's revision provides a richer conclusion to her main and subsidiary stories, but in the ending pages of printed chapter 11, in which Anne and Wentworth are reunited and discuss the tumultuous events leading to this moment, the elimination of so many dashes mutes the emotion and naturalness of the two characters' speech.

In this passage, the wording, but not the punctuation, remains the same. As they discuss Wentworth's recent misreading of Anne's feelings toward him, the printed version is composed, tranquil:

"You should have distinguished," replied Anne. "You should not have suspected me now; the case so different, and my age so different. If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty; but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated."

"Perhaps I ought to have reasoned thus," he replied, "but I could not." (244-45)

The tone is calm and civil, with much of the emotion supplied by the reader's understanding that Anne is going to get her heart's wish after so many years of sorrow. But the sensibility in Austen's original is more emotional, with the dashes creating much of that emotion.

"You should have distinguished--replied Anne--You should not have suspected me now;--The case so different, & my age so different!--If I was wrong, in yeilding to Persuasion once, remember that it was to Persuasion exerted on the side of Safety, not of Risk. When I yeilded, I thought it was to Duty.--But no Duty could be called in aid here.--In marrying a Man indifferent to me, all Risk would have been incurred, & all Duty violated."--"Perhaps I ought to have reasoned thus, he replied, but I could not.--"' (267)

All eight dashes in the original text are absent in the printed one. Other typographical elements--such as words italicized ("now"), exclamation marks ("so different!"), and capitalization ("Persuasion")--have also been dropped in the print version. Yet these marks synergistically combine with Austen's dashes to create a greater emotional effect, giving us a glimpse of Austen's original intention. The dashes also hew closer to the natural hesitations of speech that would be characteristic of two people with these characters' difficult emotional history.

Even if we eliminate three of the eight dashes in the passage, and see them as substitutes for commas and a paragraph break, the loss of the other five dashes is still disturbing. In the first sentence, the first two dashes could stand in for commas (before and after "replied Anne"), and, in the last sentence, the penultimate dash could be a paragraph break, indicating that Wentworth's reply should be in a new paragraph. Indeed, that paragraph division occurs in the printed version, while the first two dashes become a comma and a period ("'distinguished,' replied Anne"). But in the manuscript version, Wentworth's original reply to Anne's entreaty begins, "'You are right--he cried--."' Austen crossed out "You are right" and eliminated the emotionally suggestive description "he cried," opting instead for a more controlled response by Wentworth ("Perhaps I ought to have reasoned thus") (Sutherland, Fiction Manuscripts 30). As Jocelyn Harris, in her close reading of the changes made to Persuasion, has noted, Austen's revision of the final chapters makes Anne "more perfectly rational" (70). In both versions of this passage Anne is rational, but if Austen's dashes are like stage directions, the manuscript better suggests the emotional intensity arcing between these two characters in this most emotional of scenes.

The hand-written manuscripts of Austen's time, unlike the typed files of today, would, by their very nature, foster slippage from author's hand to print. But the knowledge of another editorial presence besides Austen's making dash decisions, while disturbing, should move us to give greater weight to those both she and her editors determined were needed. Thus, in several early establishing passages of Persuasion dashes are used sparingly to effectively suggest one of the novel's principal themes--how time, since the death of Lady Elliot (whose example haunts Anne), has worked upon several of the main characters: Sir Walter Elliot, Lady Russell, and Anne herself.

Sir Walter's avid perusal of the Baronetage has, the narrator implies, lately become more frequent since done in "distressed" times to assure himself that, while he may not have as much money, he still has his identity as baronet: "as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century--and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed--this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened" (3). The dashes coming after the words "century" and "failed," suggest that time has moved on, and despite his communion with other title holders, his own present concerns failure.

Sir Walter's relationship with two central women of his life, his dead wife and her friend Lady Russell, is also revealed by Austen's dash usage, once again time-related: "This friend, and Sir Walter, did not marry, whatever might have been anticipated on that head by their acquaintance.--Thirteen years had passed away since Lady Elliot's death, and they were still near neighbours and intimate friends; and one remained a widower, the other a widow" (5). The reader might immediately wonder why they hadn't married. But it has already been suggested in these early paragraphs that Sir Walter's self-love leaves no room for another; his single state is not due to pining over his dead wife. The dash signals a major shift in time: "[t]hirteen years." The novel opens at the end of those thirteen years when, like the Dashwood women in the opening of Sense and Sensibility, the Elliots are in financial distress and are in danger of losing their estate. This dash, as has been suggested of the en dash between birth and death dates, impels readers to consider all that might have occurred in that time (Ellis n.p.).

Austen uses one of the two dashes in the next paragraph to begin establishing Anne's character, especially in reference to her sisters and father. Since Anne, of his three daughters, is modest and sensible like his undervalued dead wife, the thirteen years have left her unchanged in personality. Elizabeth's influence and narcissism have increased, while "Mary had acquired a little artificial importance, by becoming Mrs. Charles Musgrove; but Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character ..., was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;--she was only Anne" (5). Time, in other words, has not changed her personality, despite her becoming "faded and thin" with sorrow and worry over Wentworth (6). Here the dash precedes the suggestive phrase "she was only Anne." "Only" to her family means "nobody," but to the alert reader "only" means still sweet and intelligent. Whether that "elegance of mind" will be enough to make her realize she should not desire a marriage like her mother's, not marry a man she disrespects only for the sake "of being restored to Kellynch, calling it her home again" (160), neither Anne nor readers know until late in the story.

While Persuasion contains many fewer dashes than Emma, the novel that contains the most (3,089), Austen imbues each one with meaning (Reeves 54). In the scene in which Anne first re-encounters Wentworth, dashes serve to replicate the disjointed rhythms of confused thought and speech. Anne, alone but for Mary's convalescing son Charles, is as surprised as Wentworth, who says, '"I thought the Miss Musgroves had been here--Mrs. Musgrove told me I should find them here.'" Anne replies, "'They are up stairs with my sister--they will be down in a few moments, I dare say'--" (79). Wentworth's startled speech ungraciously suggests that he has certainly not come to the cottage with the intention of seeing Anne. Anne, equally startled, doesn't know what she "dare say," and on the following dash rests all her disquiet.

The dashes also provide a visual bench upon which to rest as well as a directional sign to keep reading. Here, the use by Austen of dashes instead of merely commas directs the reader to "rest" on that bench a moment longer, to share the discomfort of a longed-for but embarrassing meeting. In Ruined by Design, Inger Sigrun Brodey, discussing Sense and Sensibility, notes that Austen's use of dashes surrounding the "constrained" speech of Colonel Brandon suggests his inability to articulate his emotional state. Perfect diction, Brodey argues, "belongs primarily to the cold-hearted characters" of the novel (172-73).

Much of the lyrical nature of reading Persuasion is moving with the Persephone-like Anne as she ventures out into the world, away from the doomed family estate, and watching as her self-esteem gradually increases. The scene in Lyme Regis with the Musgrove sisters and Captain Wentworth, when they suddenly encounter her cousin William Elliot, is an important way-station in that restorative journey. When Elliot looks at Anne with "a degree of earnest admiration," Austen uses dashes to reflect Wentworth's emotional response to another man's desiring Anne--and Anne's perception of that response: "Captain Wentworth looked round at her instantly in a way which shewed his noticing of it. He gave her a momentary glance,--a glance of brightness, which seemed to say, 'That man is struck with you,--and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again'" (104). While what Wentworth's gaze means is underplayed--Anne is now merely "something like" her old self--Austen's dashes suggest something more. She uses them to suggest a shift in thought; Wentworth pauses to reconsider his feelings toward Anne. The two dashes also suggest that Anne has discerned an intensity of emotion on Wentworth's part that will finally be given textual form in his pleading letter to her at novel's end.

The final sentences of Persuasion in manuscript and print forms illustrate once again how Austen used the dash to suggest heightened emotion and to replicate the actual thought process. The words are the same in both versions, but the manuscript version, below, includes an italicized word, many capitalizations, and, of course, numerous dashes--all of which have been excised for print.
   Anne was Tenderness itself;--and she had the full worth of it in
   Captn Wentworth's affection. His Profession was all that could ever
   make her friends wish that Tenderness less; the dread of a future
   War, all that could dim her Sunshine.--She gloried in being a
   Sailor's wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm, for
   belonging to that Profession which is--if possible--more
   distinguished in it's Domestic Virtues, than in it's National
   Importance.-- (273)

The printed version is as follows:
   Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in
   Captain Wentworth's affection. His profession was all that could
   ever make her friends wish that tenderness less; the dread of a
   future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a
   sailor's wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for
   belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more
   distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national
   importance. (252)

The novel's tone of subtle melancholy remains in both passages. Words such as "dread," "war," "dim," "tax," and "alarm" are only marginally kept in check by "tenderness," "affection," "sunshine," and "gloried." But in the print version the commas that replace the dash after "itself" and those that precede and follow "if possible" work to speed readers along instead of keeping them inside of the mixed elation and "dread" that are Anne Elliot's competing emotions as a new bride.

Austen's heavy reliance on this feature of punctuation is an essential aspect of her writing and part of her stylistic signature. Virginia Woolf noted that Austen's writing "stimulates us to supply what is not there" (138). One of her techniques for doing so was the dash. As Sutherland argues, "something has been lost" with the regularization of Austen's punctuation (Kennedy), particularly with all the dashes "disappeared" by printers. We can't rectify that loss; we can only acknowledge it before moving on to more fully appreciate the insights the extant dashes can foster. (6)


(1.) I am discussing here the longer, so-called em dash (--), used principally but not solely for parenthetical phrasings, as opposed to the shorter en dash (-), used principally to note a range of possibilities, as in a span of ages, for example. I am also not discussing hyphenated words, a practice which is fast disappearing in the simplification of spelling.

(2.) See Lance Bertelsen's "An Unfortunate Period: Revisiting the Opening Paragraph of Persuasion"

(3.) Johnson acknowledges that while probable, it is not certain that Austen proofed the 1816 version of Mansfield Park (xvi n5).

(4.) Compare, for example, Lady Susan, letter 2, in Chapman's edition, to the manuscript passage in Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition. Chapman has not left out all dashes, but many (MW 244-46; Sutherland, Fiction Manuscripts, Lady Susan 3-7).

(5.) The dash is distinct from Austen's use of a blank line, a common device in early novels for proper names of people or places left out for a variety of reasons. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Wickham explains to Elizabeth that it was '"the prospect of constant society, and good society,'" that was his '"chief inducement to enter the-shire'" (79). Most twenty-first century readers just skip over the blanks with a confused backward glance.

(6.) I am immensely grateful for the insights provided by the anonymous reviewers and Susan Allen Ford.


Austen, Jane. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-1969.

Bertelsen, Lance. "An Unfortunate Period: Revisiting the Opening Paragraph of Persuasion."Modern Philology 108 (2011): 462-67.

Brodey, Inger Sigrun. Ruined by Design: Shaping Novels and Gardens in the Culture of Sensibility. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Ellis, Linda, and Mac Anderson. The Dash: Making a Difference with Tour Life from Beginning to End. Nashville: Nelson, 2012.

Harris, Jocelyn. A Revolution Almost beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2007.

Johnson, Claudia L. Introduction. Mansfield Park. New York: Norton, 1998. xi-xxi.

Kennedy, Maev. "Pride, Prejudice and Poor Punctuation." The Guardian 22 Oct. 2010.

Reeves, Jenny. "Filling in the Dashes." Jane Austen's Regency World Nov./Dec. 2015: 54-55.

Southam, B. C. Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts. Oxford: OUP, 1964.

Sutherland, Kathryn. Interview with Mary Louise Kelly. Morning Edition, National Public Radio. 27 Oct. 2010. Transcript.

--. "Jane Austen's Dealings with John Murray and His Firm." The Review of English Studies 64 (2013): 105-26.

--. Jane Austen's Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood. Oxford: OUP, 2005.

--, ed. Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition. University of Oxford/ King's College London, 2012.

Thomas, Lewis. "Notes on Punctuation." The Little Norton Reader: 50 Essays from the First 50 Tears. Ed. Melissa A. Goldthwaite. New York: Norton, 2016. 160-63.

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader: First Series. New York: Harcourt, 1984.

Patricia Ard is Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey, where she regularly teaches nineteenth-century American and British literature, especially Jane Austen. She has published previously in Persuasions On-Line.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany; Jane Austen's "Persuasion"
Author:Ard, Patricia M.
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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