Monday, March 19, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The Annotated Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s story of love and misunderstanding in late 18th century England is perhaps best known for its opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The Bennett family has five daughters and, since the estate will pass to a cousin on their father’s death, the girls must make good marriages if their futures are to be secure. When the wealthy Mr. Bingley moves into the neighbourhood, Mrs. Bennett is determined that Jane, her eldest daughter, will win his heart. All seems to be progressing according to plan until Bingley’s snobbish friend Mr. Darcy whisks him away from Netherfield, leaving Jane devastated and her sister Lizzie sure the cause is Darcy. When Darcy then proposes to Lizzie, she is astonished and roundly denounces him for the pain he caused her family.

Originally published in early 1813, Pride and Prejudice became a literary success before the end of the year. This new edition has been annotated and edited by David M. Shapard, a specialist in European history of the 18th Century. The Annotated Pride and Prejudice follows faithfully the text of the first edition (1813), which was checked by Jane Austen. The only changes made to the text were to make spelling or capitalization of proper names consistent.

The text is presented on the left page and annotations are presented on the right page. Annotations are provided on a wide range of topics: literary interpretations, word meanings, explanations of items such as a “chaise and four” which in some cases include illustrations, and explanations of historical context. While this classic can be enjoyed without the extras, understanding the small distinctions between a phaeton, gig, carriage and “chaise and four” can help demystify social interaction in 18th Century society. For anyone wondering what four or five thousand a year would be today (Bingley's estimated income), Shapard explains the sources of a gentleman's income and what it would be worth today ($250,000 - $300,000 US per year).

Devotees of Austen’s work will find that The Annotated Pride and Prejudice provides a fresh illumination to a favourite work. Those reading it for the first time will find the annotations, maps, and bibliography helpful in understanding this exceptional novel.

Of special interest is the chronology Shapard includes for the events in the novel. The specific dates Austen provides are not consistent with the novel happening in 1811 - 1812. Shapard provides various theories on the debate and as he concludes: "no specific year can be identified as the clearly appropriate one for the novel's chronology, and that the safest course, except for the early part of the novel, is to be precise when possible about the sequence of days, without ever assigning specific calendar days."

Although Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice is still one I read regularly. Using The Annotated Pride and Prejudice for this year's reading forced me to slow my pace and savour the text anew. Even though this is a novel I've read numerous times, the annotations still provided some new information and helped confirm suppositions made in past readings. I'll be keeping both this new edition and my old faithful copy and future readings will probably be a combination of the two.

Read my condensed review at Armchair Interviews.

ISBN10: 0307278107
ISBN13: 9780307278104

Trade Paperback
784 Pages
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publication Date: March 13, 2007


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