Mar 16, 2007

Annotating Jane Austen

William Grimes writes about the growing market for annotated books and period guides to Austen's work.
Furze is a plant found all over England. It covers Egdon Heath, the forbidding wasteland in Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native,” and when I first read the novel, many years ago, I conjured up a vivid and completely inaccurate picture of what it looked like. I envisioned furze as a tangle of bare, black and gnarled stalks — a bonsai version of the leafless evil trees in Walt Disney’s “Snow White.” In fact furze is the same plant as gorse, the yellow-flowered shrub that Winnie-the-Pooh falls into. My reading was factually false but imaginatively true to the spirit of Hardy’s bleak, oppressive landscape.
This sort of thing is fun, but hardly necessary. When I was a child, reading about someone tucking into plum pudding, I envisioned something luscious and exotic--the ultimate festive treat. Knowing that plum pudding is a revolting sort of a steamed fruitcake would have--for me--made the festivities in A Christmas Carol much less tantalizing.

Turkish Delight, the candy given to Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is rather delightful. And knowing now about wartime sugar rations during the period makes Edmund's seduction by candy all the more understandable for me the adult reader. But as a child just the name Turkish Delight conjured up something magical and alluring. Clearly, it was a treat that would require massive willpower to resist.

I also find annotated editions distracting.
Do details like this matter? The question posed itself, again and again, as I read “The Annotated Pride and Prejudice,” published this month. David M. Shapard, the editor, does not merely sprinkle a few footnotes here and there. Each and every page of Jane Austen’s text has a facing page of explanatory notes, more than 2,300 of them all told. Some are as brief as a word or two; others amount to small essays. No one, working diligently through novel and notes, will ever fall victim to what I now think of as the furze fallacy.
I have a complete works of Shakespeare that's annotated up the wazoo. But if I actually want to read a play, I prefer to consult a paperback. Not only is the complete works too heavy to read in bed, but I find myself stopping to read each note on the page, whether it's a definition of "Alarum" or a treatise on the War of the Roses. Still, it's a fun thing to have as an extra.

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