James Fenimore Cooper's Precaution - better than Austen's Persuasion?
Since I have just spent a year writing the sequel to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I’ve understandably been pretty immersed in the novel and its characters. After all, it’s my favourite Austen novel. And I think it is fair to say that I’m not alone – it is a favourite with many Austen lovers. After all, who could not feel for Anne and Wentworth, and the struggle they make to find what they once lost? I can’t imagine anyone not loving this beautiful story!
Well, it may come as a shock but while Persuasion was enjoying some popularity after its post-humous publishment in 1818, not all the reviews were favourable.
Most interestingly, a young man by the name of James Fenimore Cooper was said to have read with disdain a ‘newly published novel’ which is not named, but which has been established by literary critic George Hastings as very likely being Austen’s Persuasion. Cooper’s own daughter related later that Cooper read it through, then remarked to his wife that he could ‘write a better novel himself’.
He then proceeded to make good on that remark, and a year later, in 1820, his novel, Precaution, was published.
As in Austen’s novel, Precaution concerns itself with the matter of parental interference in courtship, In Cooper’s novel, this can come off at times as moralizing, whereas Austen’s novel was on the whole less didactic, less ‘preachy’. Austen seems to have overall rooted for the couple she writes of, and to argue for, as she termed it in Northanger Abbey, ‘filial disobedience’. She roots very much for Anne’s original inclinations as the ones which would have led to her happiness, and suggests that the regarding of ‘parental guidance’ in the form of Lady Russell’s advice, as leading to her unhappiness.
Conversely, Cooper’s counter-novel argues the opposite. His heroine, Emily, is rewarded for her ‘unvarying sense of duty’ which is her guidepost throughout Precaution.
In any case, I still enjoyed reading Cooper’s novel very much, and found it entertaining and fascinating when read with the understanding of the motivation behind it, and especially knowing that Persuasion was likely the blueprint for his perhaps more moralistic version. This debut novel launched Cooper’s career as a writer and he went on to write several wonderful and intelligent novels for which he is more widely known, The Last of the Mohicans perhaps being his most well-known novel.
I will leave it to readers to get hold of a copy of Precaution and let us know once you make up your own minds as to which was the ‘better novel’.
Fenimore Cooper, James. Precaution. New York: A.T. Goodrich & Co., 1820.
Fenimore Cooper, Susan. ‘Introductions to Novels by James Fenimore Cooper.’ James Fenimore Cooper Website.
Hastings, George E. "How Cooper Became a Novelist." American Literature, vol. 12, no. 1, 1940, pp. 20-51