The Annotated Emma, by Jane Austen, Annotated and Edited by David M. Shapard – A Review

The Annontated Emma, by Jane Austen, edited by David M. Shapard (2012)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

The Annotated Emma, by Jane Austen, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard
Anchor Books (2012)
Trade paperback (928) pages
ISBN: 978-0307390776
NOOK: ISBN: 978-0307950246

  • 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

15 thoughts on “The Annotated Emma, by Jane Austen, Annotated and Edited by David M. Shapard – A Review

Add yours

  1. I agree with you about the cover. On the other hand, that’s a minor complaint. I just got this one in the post, and I intend to read it soon. I’ve read the other annotated editions by David Shepard, and enjoyed them very much. I hope that this one will match up as well. Thank you for the review.


  2. Although I had read “Pride and Prejudice” several times before I read David Shapard’s annotated edition of P&P, it greatly increased my enjoyment of re-reading P&P yet again. From your review, I am sure that I will be able to say the same when I read his annotated edition of “Emma.” Laurel Ann mentions that “Emma” has no villain to create plot complications. As it happens, I am scheduled to show and talk about a screwball comedy movie which has no villains, “Christmas in July” (1940) written and directed by the legendary Preston Sturges. It’s one of his least known and underappreciated films, but it has a fast-paced euphoric feel-good ending unlike no other feel-good ending. I think the fact that it requires no villains to get its plot complications in gear is what appeals to me — it requires more creativity than merely relying on somewhat artificial plot machinations.


  3. Emma was my gateway into the wonderful world of Jane Austen and indeed romance fiction so it has a very special place in my heart. I ESPECIALLY liked your format in this review….so very creative! One of all-time favorite scenes, both in the book and in the film adaptations is Mr Elton’s very awkward proposal to Emma in the carriage. I never get tired of reading that and seeing that!


  4. With all due respect to those of you here, I actually like the cover. I think the contrasting pink dress against the black background is quiet pretty! Yes it is different than the other 3 of which I like those as well for different reasons. There was something appealing about this cover to me! In fact it was what drew me to pick up this work and take notice of David Shapard. I then looked up the other 3 annotations and purchased those as well. Obviously it is the content that really got me to take notice, but when I first saw the cover on another Jane Austen blog I was very intrigued. I am in my forties so it is not because I am young and full of modern ways. However in some way I think that is what intrigued my about the cover. All this about the cover probably seems silly but I just was surprised to see that people didn’t like it as that was what attracted me to it in the first place. I am funny that way as the covers do seem to matter to me. Not as much as what is inside. I must admit a cover has caused me to buy a book or two that perhaps I shouldn’t have. In this case though the content is completely wonderful and full of great information! I look forward to reading all 4 annotations and hope he will also do the Northhanger Abbey and Mansfield Park!


  5. I have the other annotated versions and absolutely love them! I have to say I do like this cover, The pink gown with the black background is very pretty, I can’t wait to see it in person.



  6. I love these annotated versions as they add so much more after having read and re-read the originals for so long. David Shapard catches things that I did not even know that I missed and find enriching.

    Must toss in my vote on the cover- I like it. :D

    Thanks for the wonderful review!


  7. I am so excited that this came out finally! I have been waiting for it for months. I loved all his other annotations; they make the story so much better. There are certain phrases or actions that just don’t mean the same today so having him point out why they were wrong helps to get a clearer picture. For example, in the annotated Persuasion he points out that it was not proper for a woman to shake a man’s hand that she was not engaged to or a close relation of so when seeing Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliot shake hands was a huge deal. I can’t wait to read this one!


  8. While I love all Jane Austen’s books in their different ways, I always think “Emma” represents the height of her powers as a novelist.

    In “Emma” we see a fine writer doing something tricky, remarkably well; there are a lot of angles, and each one shines like a jewel. How Emma is in essence an idiot, despite her cleverness and her many excellent qualities, and how, because as readers we get the story through her perspective, we are made to be idiots too, complicit in her cluelessness. (And in fact, not truly knowing what’s going on, always putting yourself at the center of the story — that’s the human condition, isn’t it?) The offhand way JA hides the dramatic story of Jane Fairfax’s and Frank Churchill’s secret love in plain sight. Whether intended or not, “Emma” always reads to me like a mediation on writing itself: What is Emma if not a frustrated novelist, willing love stories out of thin air and her own imagination? How are we to understand this story of a woman with so much potential and so little to do, confined in such a claustrophobic world, except as a disguised and altered portrait of JA herself?

    Sorry to go on like Miss Bates, but “Emma” is an endlessly fascinating topic for me. I can’t wait to read this annotated version; I am so happy to know about it. Thanks for the great review!


  9. I have just finished reading my Annotated Emma on Kindle – not quite as accessible, but I don’t have the shelf space! – and was surprised to learn even more about the historical background to my favourite Austen novel. The notes, illustrations and maps really added to my enjoyment!

    Although I have only seen the cover in black and white on Kindle, and in colour on Amazon (and here), I like the concept – the ‘figure’ tags around a Regency era dress explain in one image both the novel and the Shapard’s annotations!

    I feel I must also defend Emma herself, who can best be summed up by the phrase ‘There is none so blind as those who will not see’. She isn’t a cruel person, just misguided, and her faults make her more endearing to me than practically perfect heroines like Lizzy, or priggish bores like Fanny. Emma and Mr Knightley are my favourite Austen couple, and once Emma realises the error of her ways and finds love with her best friend, I don’t believe Knightley will have to ‘correct’ her behaviour after they are married. She will still be lively and witty, but not at anyone else’s expense.


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