Yet We Do

March 16, 2007

A fun article in today’s Times considers the necessity of annotated editions, focusing on a new edition of Pride and Prejudice:

Any reader who sticks with the program and absorbs the wealth of material that Mr. Shapard offers will, insofar as such a thing as possible, read “Pride and Prejudice” as it was read and understood at the time of its publication, with all the period details in place and correctly interpreted. But the novel, in most respects, remains the same. The reader who does not know a farthing from a guinea, it’s safe to say, will nonetheless grasp the great drama of attraction and repulsion that plays out between Darcy and Elizabeth. The cut and thrust of their conversation is timeless. Generations of young women who do not know the first thing about an entailed estate or a quadrille will recognize in Austen’s heroine a kindred spirit, a contemporary, a valued ally in the eternal war between the sexes.

How can this be? Austen was a stickler for accuracy. Like most of the great 19th-century novelists, she reported on her surroundings with loving attention to detail, creating her world fact by closely observed fact. Yet with time, details lose their meaning. Who, a century from now, will understand what a yuppie was, or text-messaging, or the meaning of an Armani suit?

In an 1816 foreword to “Northanger Abbey,” begun in 1798 and finished in 1803, Austen warned readers that the world she described might seem unfamiliar. “The public are entreated to bear in mind,” she wrote, “that 13 years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” Thirteen years! If English readers at the time were puzzled, how on earth are American, Japanese or Russian readers in the 21st century supposed to make head or tails of what they read? Yet they do.

Also included is this superb image reprinted from Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels.

(click to enlarge)



  1. I couldn’t resist though, I had to buy the book anyway!

  2. I may have to get my hands on that edition of P&P — AND on Deirdre La Faye’s book, which sounds fascinating.

  3. I saw the annotated P&P at the bookstore and was tempted, but I didn’t cave in quite yet.

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