Of all of Jane Austen’s six major works, I have always been daunted by Emma: both the novel and its eponymous heroine. It is Austen’s longest work and contains her most “troublesome creature” Miss Emma Woodhouse.
I am not alone in my challenge to understand and appreciate this clever tale. The first time I read it many years ago I was mystified. It took further readings and research to fully appreciate it. I only wish on a first acquaintance that I had this new annotated edition of Emma by Prof. David Shapard available to me. This is the fourth Austen novel that he has annotated – and it is indeed a wonder. At a hefty 928 pages, no stone has been left unturned to offer the reader: an introduction, bibliography and detailed chronology of events; explanation of historical context; citations from Austen’s life, letters, and other writings; maps of the places in the novel, and nearly 200 informative illustrations. Phew! If the eBook version included film clips, we could all throw up our hands and proclaim that there was indeed nothing left to experience in the Emma Woodhouse lexicon.
Published in 1815, Austen was at the top of her game as a writer and many scholars proclaim it as her masterpiece. Readers will argue that point. I will too. There are many elements of story and characters that I adore – and some not so much. Though first-time readers (especially young students and some early critics) thought it is a snooze fest, if one looks beyond the surface, Emma is an intricate story focused on the astute characterization and social reproof which Austen is famous for. Our heroine Emma Woodhouse is a complex character that on first acquaintance is rather a pill. Austen gave herself a great challenge in creating “a heroine whom no one but myself will like.” In contrast with her other heroines, Miss Woodhouse does not have any social or financial concerns and thus no compelling need to marry. Therein lies the rub. We have no sympathy for her whatsoever. She’s rich, she’s spoiled and she’s stuck up. Who indeed could possibly like such a “troublesome creature”? During the course of the novel, we witness her exerting her superior notions of who is suitable for whom as she matchmakes for her friends with disastrous results. But…what a great journey we are privileged to be taken on. Here are a few of my reactions to the novel and David Shapard’s elaboration of it:
The Good: Notwithstanding Emma Woodhouse, it is the secondary characters that really shine in Emma for me. Harriet Smith, Emma’s young, impressionable friend is one my favorite of Austen’s creations. Even though she is undereducated and from the wrong side of the blanket, by the end of the novel she knows her own heart and is superior in my mind to the grand dame of the first family of consequence in Highbury, Emma herself. Austen excelled at sharp wit and comedy in this novel. None can match Mrs. Elton in snobbery and conceit, Miss Bates as the garrulous spinster who is all heart and no brains, and Frank Churchill who is so slyly smarmy that we don’t see it coming. Ha!
Shapard’s format of having the unabridged text on the left page and notes, asides and explanations on the right is continued in the edition. He writes in an accessible style that is both enlightening and enjoyable. Even after years of study, this Janeite enjoyed revisiting facts, learning new ones, and delighting in the black and white period illustrations.
The Bad: Novice readers: you may think that not a lot happens in the narrative so pay attention to details and glean facts from the notes. Even though by the end of the novel Emma Woodhouse does realize her faults and missapplyments, I never really believe that she will change that much. (spoilers) I speculate that her new husband Mr. Knightley will have his hands full correcting Emma and keeping her in check. The novel would have benefited from a stronger tension than the fact that Emma does not think she has to marry but wants to match up all her friends instead. There are no real villains or serious life challenges here, so modern readers will be a bit flummoxed. The between the lines social commentary and humor are key, making it not only a literary masterpiece but a delightfully layered and complex read.
With the annotation doubling the size, this volume becomes a doorstop quality chunkster. The publisher wisely used lightweight quality paper and the binding allows for easy movement, but at one and a half pounds, it weighs a ton and the sheer size may be intimidating. The upside is that at $17.95 the price is a steal for the amount of research material and images therein.
The Ugly: Sadly, authors have very little choice or input on the cover art. In this case, that fact is keenly apparent. The cover does not match the quality of the novel and the annotation. We realize that we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this one is just ghastly.
“Doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgments, but directed chiefly by her own. The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself….” Emma, Chapter 1
The cover follows the theme of the three previous editions in the series by using a period illustration with enumerated details – but ouch. The black background on a bulky book? A photograph of a period frock that is not very fetching? The color combinations? Ack! My artistic sensibilities pray that buyers will not turn away in fright.
4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars
- For those of you who have long harbored the notion that Vic Sanborn of Jane Austen’s World and I are the same person…here is her review of THE ANNOTATED EMMA. Mine was so close to hers that I had to rewrite it. So for your enjoyment…here are our two dueling reviews of a great new edition to the Miss Emma Woodhouse lexicon!
Cover image courtesy of Anchor Books © 2012; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2010, Austenprose