George Justice, Editor

The Most Annotated

The Annotated Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen.
Annotated and Edited, with an Introduction, by David M. Shapard.
Pheasant Books, 2004. xviii + 739 pages.
20 B/W illustrations, 3 maps.
Hardcover.  $29.95.

Reviewed by Linda Bree.

There are of course many annotated editions of Pride and Prejudice: versions in hardcover and paperback contain extensive explanatory notes, and there is at least one web version where additional information can be accessed via keywords. But this volume can certainly claim to be “The Most Annotated Pride and Prejudice” ever likely to be available. David Shapard’s edition presents a parallel text, with Austen’s novel on the left-hand page and Shapard’s annotations on the right—and often the notes come close to outpacing in length the novel page to which they apply.

The text is taken from the first edition of the novel, minimally and unobstrusively corrected. “Annotation” is not merely a matter of explanatory notes: there are numerous illustrations (of everything from Austen’s handwriting to Regency fire screens, all rather sketchily drawn), three maps, a chronology, a bibliography, and a broadly informative introduction. 

But the chief point of interest of this edition is the notes. All editors of texts anguish over what to include and what to leave out when preparing notes: usually they give priority to factual and contextual information but avoid offering personal views, so that the reader is given the tools in order to interpret the text for him- or herself. With so much space at his disposal, Shapard does not have to be so selective. 

His notes divide into five types, helpfully set out on the dust jacket. The first, “Explanations of historical topics,” is the most successful: Shapard is a historian, and his historical notes, including information from the clergy to the army, from seabathing to the intricacies of entail, are generally clear and helpful. “Citations from Jane Austen’s own life and writings” are less uniformly illuminating. There are some relevant quotations of Austen’s opinions and experiences from her letters, but reference to her other writings consists largely of factual details such as dining hours at Mansfield Park, rather than any more fruitful comparisons. “Definitions of words” and “Clarifications” (of “obscure passages”) are sometimes useful, sometimes not. Of course it needs to be pointed out how far “candour” has changed its meaning since the early 19th Century, and what “address” was meant to convey; but often a word is glossed by another word which is no clearer than the original, and when it comes to explaining “mind” as “character” or “views” as “expectations,” or when giving a “turn” to a story is defined as giving an “interpretation,” the subtlety of Austen’s language begins to seep away.

This is even more apparent in the notes of “Literary comments and analyses”—which means Shapard’s personal opinion of the novel itself, often line by line. Here real problems set in, chiefly because Shapard’s literary judgements seem very limited: for example, at the end of the scene in which Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth the note concludes “Whatever the reason [for Elizabeth’s anger at Darcy], it is at this point that Elizabeth’s anger boils over enough to inspire the truly devastating words that conclude her rejection of him.” It’s hard to see what the purpose of such a note is, except that Shapard simply wants to share his strong emotional response to Elizabeth’s action here.

Overall, Shapard has clearly prepared this edition as a labour of love; and indeed many other lovers of Pride and Prejudice might wish to offer their competing versions. In the light of this, it might have been helpful if the publishers had produced interleaved blank pages so readers could enter their responses more comfortably than the scribblings I frequently found myself making in the margin.

But it is in fact difficult to know what readers the publishers expect. The dust jacket warns that some of the notes reveal the plot in advance (which they do), and so the volume is aimed at people who wish to read the novel at least a second time, pausing on every sentence. But will high school students want to carry about with them a volume costing $30.00 and weighing in at two-and-half pounds? Will college students be willing to work with quotations that are unsourced throughout? And will any adult be happy with the very basic level of comment of which so much of the annotation consists?

The most dispiriting aspect of this edition is that the kind of dogged paraphrases and sentence-by-sentence interpretations and comments offered by Shapard, if taken seriously, work to diminish Austen’s achievement. During Elizabeth’s visit to Rosings, Mr. Collins insists on giving the visitors a full tour of his garden: “every view,” writes Austen, “was pointed out with a minuteness which left beauty entirely behind.” Shapard’s edition at times comes perilously close to producing a reading of Pride and Prejudice that might have been offered by Mr. Collins.                                       

Linda Bree is Editor of European and British Literature at Cambridge University Press. She is the author of Sarah Fielding for the Twayne English Author Series and editor of Sarah Fielding’s David Simple and Jane Austen’s Persuasion

JASNA News v.21, no. 1, Spring 2005, p. 16

See more book reviews

Return to Home Page