The New Standard Edition of Emma?Emma
By Jane Austen
Edited by Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan.
Cambridge University Press, 2005.
lxxvii + 600 pages. 3 B/W illustrations.
Reviewed by Devoney Looser.
Is the Cambridge Emma the new standard edition? Recent letters in the Times Literary Supplement debate whether R. W. Chapman’s Oxford editions (completed in the 1920s) have been superseded by the new Cambridge Editions of the Works of Jane Austen. According to the Cambridge Edition’s General Editor, Janet Todd, they have. According to Kathryn Sutherland, Chapman’s champion, they have not. In the Cambridge Emma, editors Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan maintain that “we should not continue to be overly deferential” to Chapman. The debate may be arcane, but the stakes are not small. If the Cambridge Edition is the new standard edition, it becomes the text from which scholars ought to quote—and which libraries should purchase.
Without attempting to settle the matter, I hope to share my sense of one Cambridge volume: Emma. The book, it must be acknowledged, is a beautiful object. Its dark red hardcover and endpapers are sturdy, elegant, and understated, featuring Austen’s signature in gold. The edition features a built-in ribbon, marking it as a book to be read again and again. Given its price, however, it would seem foolish to buy it without an intention to re-read it.
Where Chapman’s Emma included a scant six pages of endnotes (exclusive of interesting appendices), the Cronin/McMillan edition offers a meaty—and perhaps overzealous—68 pages. The strengths of these explanatory notes lie in the areas of medicine, geography, food, and transportation. The entry on “putrid sore throat,” explaining that it could signal typhus fever or diptheria, is informative. The notes contextualize locations, such as the class- stratification planned at Brunswick Square and the resort town Cromer’s amenities. I enjoyed learning about north Wiltshire cheese (more expensive than most cheeses) and corner dishes (preserves, pickles, and savoury ragouts). But the Explanatory Notes also gloss common terms. Do readers require notes defining words found in a standard dictionary? The editors apparently think so, telling us that “voluntary” means “willing,” that a “confidant” is “a person with whom confidences are shared,” and that “repulsive” means “off-putting.” Another weakness is a tendency to repeat examples from the editors’ introduction in the notes section.
The extensive front matter is less impressive than the notes. The chronology of Austen’s life is unexceptional, but the introduction is a disappointment. A typo appears in the General Editor’s “Preface” (“seen” for “been”). Cronin and McMillan’s 56-page introduction compounds the problem. Twice Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe is referred to as “Anne.” We learn that a quotation may be found in the text on “p. 000” (p. lvi). Most stunning is the reference to “Marianne and Elinor Ferrars” traveling to London. I kept trying to find some way in which the editors really meant to refer to Elinor Dashwood after she married, but I have yet to discover it as anything but an egregious error.
The introduction is also marred by repetition. We read twice that Austen may have used an almanac in composing Emma; that Fanny Knight contemplated a dirty shaving rag; and that Austen read Sarah Burney’s Clarentine three times. We get nearly the same introduction to Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote on two occasions.
The introduction’s content is otherwise serviceable. But although there are illuminating sections, there are also moments at which readers may raise an eyebrow. Are we to believe that Austen is like Emma because “As she grew confirmed in her spinsterhood, Austen, too, began to live vicariously”? Is it self-evident that, compared to other female authors of the time, “Austen was ill-read”? Though provocative, I found unpersuasive the argument detailing Austen’s “refusal to associate her novels with poetry,” by quoting verse that is as “hackneyed as possible.” Some elements of the introduction deserve to be appreciated, especially those detailing Regency medical practices or the plots of lesser- known novels.
Finally, the introduction’s omissions are curious. It purports to be up-to-date in its synthesis of scholarship but avoids mention of arguments over Emma and lesbianism. This seems either illinformed or cowardly, given the recent prominence of such debates.
Is this the new standard edition of Emma? Its scrupulous text and copious annotations suggest as much. The edition includes a complete list of the editors’ corrections and emendations. Contemporary collating practices were used in preparing the volume, and the text retains both period and variant spellings. It is the edition most faithful to the 1816 novel that we have. Whether JASNA readers will consider it worth the price of purchase, with its features and flaws, remains to be seen.
Devoney Looser, author of British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670- 1820, is associate professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
JASNA News v.22, no. 2, Summer 2006, p. 15
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