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Cambridge Edition of Sense and Sensibility

“Here Is God’s Plenty”

Sense and Sensibility
The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen

Edited by Edward Copeland.
Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Hardcover. $120.00.
lxviii + 500 pages. 2 B/W illustrations.

Reviewed by Julie Melnyk.

All who value Jane Austen’s novels, be they enthusiastic readers or merely scholars, must rejoice to see her work paid the tribute of a full scholarly edition by Cambridge University Press with introductions and annotations by top literary critics. The volumes themselves are handsomely bound, complete with satin bookmarks and wide margins. Such treatment is perhaps especially gratifying for devotees of Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first published novel, which, as editor Edward Copeland writes, has been regarded by many as the “red-headed stepchild of the Austen canon.” For all its virtues, however, this edition of S&S suffers from an insufficiently clear sense of audience: in trying to meet the needs of the ordinary reader as well as of the scholar, it ends up serving neither very well.

Perhaps the best part of this edition is Copeland’s 42-page introduction, which provides important biographical, historical, cultural, and literary context for the novel, as well as tracing the reputation of the novel from its original reviews through the early 21st century. Copeland begins with detailed information about Austen’s composition, revision, and publication of S&S, including what the first edition cost (15s) and how much Austen was paid (£140—a respectable sum), set in the context of contemporary publishing practices. He then turns to the initial reception of the novel, including not only the two favorable periodical reviews, but also reactions recorded in private letters. He also notes the foreign editions, including a French translation in 1815, and a later U. S. version in 1833, specially edited for delicate American religious sensibilities, with “Oh Lord” changed to “Oh!,” and “Good heavens” to “Is it possible.”

In the next sections, Copeland traces the critical history of Austen’s novel through the 19th and 20th centuries. Particularly interesting is the way that “Austen’s unsparing rigour of judgment” and “steady harshness” in S&S was used by some critics to counteract the version of Aunt Jane put forward in J. E. Austen- Leigh’s memoir, even as the same characteristics alienated some Victorian women writers. He identifies Marvin Mudrick’s 1952 critical study, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, as marking a significant turning-point in 20th-century criticism of S&S: its sympathetic reading of Marianne and its attack on Austen’s treatment of her—“Marianne, the life and center of the novel, has been betrayed; and not by Willoughby”—led other critics to defend Austen by placing her more firmly in her intellectual and cultural context and arguing for Elinor, rather than her sister, as the “life and center of the novel.” Scholars and general readers alike will learn from the introduction and find much to admire here.

The text of the novel itself is clear and free from obvious error. This edition uses as copytext the corrected second edition of 1813 and notes variants in the 1811 edition at the bottom of each page. Nearly all of the variants, however, concern matters of punctuation or spelling (“enquiring” in 1811 becomes “inquiring” in 1813) or minor corrections: no more than half a dozen of the variants make any real difference to the interpretation of the passages involved, and even then the difference is generally quite small. While Copeland claims in his introduction that the “[e]mendations . . . suggest a general softening of the first energy of Austen’s satiric impulses,” he adduces as evidence three changes in a text of (in this edition) 428 pages—hardly a significant weakening of Austen’s pervasive satire. The meticulous record of second-edition emendations will be valuable mainly to those interested in punctuation and usage in the period: ordinary readers and most literary critics will find that information about the few substantive changes do not make up for the distracting minor variants at the bottom of nearly every page. The changes that make a difference to satirical strength or to characterization, such as those cited by Copeland, could easily have been included in endnotes as they are in Chapman’s edition of S&S.

The weakest aspect of the Cambridge edition is the endnotes. Here the attempt to be all things to all readers reduces the usefulness of the endnotes for everyone. Scholars and even readers familiar with literature of the period will find it annoying to flip to the back of this tome only to be given a definition of an ordinary word (superannuated, eclat), such as might be found in any dictionary. To be fair, most of the words Copeland defines are those whose meanings have shifted over time (plate: utensils for the table, the silverware; discovered: revealed; natural: illegitimate) or which have different meanings in British English (mean), but these will also be familiar to readers with experience in the period and useful primarily to beginning students.

Although much in this volume—including Deirdre Le Faye’s Austen chronology and many of the endnotes—could be useful for the ordinary reader, the distracting variants and the price ($120) of this edition make other editions much more attractive. Perhaps, all things considered, this edition is best treated as a reference work, to be consulted rather than read.

Julie Melnyk, author of Victorian Religion: Faith and Life in Britain, is Associate Director of the Honors College at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and Co-coordinator of the Missouri Central Region.

JASNA News, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer 2008, p. 16

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