Review by Claire
In general, annotated editions are the province of the true devotees, those who genuinely want to know if, say, it really was foggy on the morning of April 4, 1878, as Dr. Watson said it was when he and Holmes ventured out on the case of the blue carbuncle. This presents a challenge for an annotated Austen, since her works are famous for lack of specificity about dates and current events. Sadly, it is a challenge to which David Shapard’s Annotated Pride and Prejudice rarely rises.
When the notes are used to explain social customs, or words no longer in common use, they are quite useful and even amusing. We learn about fashions in card games, men’s coats, landscaping, and travel destinations. Occasional references are made to Austen’s letters, and to other writers of the time. The latter are especially helpful, since often those other writers are more or less unknown now. I had never heard before that when Elizabeth declines walking with Darcy and Bingley’s sisters by saying “the picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth,” she is actually referring to a specific critic’s notions of how many cows belong in a picture together. My enjoyment of P&P has certainly been improved by the thought of Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley, and Mrs. Hurst as a group of idyllic cows.
Unfortunately, the opportunities for notes such as these are not abundant, and Shapard, apparently abhorring a vacuum, has filled the rest with commentary on Austen’s characterization and use of irony. These notes simply state the obvious. I find it hard to believe that anyone who would buy the Annotated P&P needs to be told that, for example, “The formal and long-winded phrasing of [Mr. Collins’] letter, along with its obsequious substance, give a good hint of his character.” Or that “Elizabeth is being sarcastic” when she says that Darcy has no defect. Instead of these repetitive comments, I would have preferred to see notes on other scholarly opinions on the work, but there were almost none.
It is possible that I am simply wrong about the intended audience for the Annotated P&P. I had expected a meaty, obsessive tome, but that could easily scare off beginning Austen readers. If happy viewers of P&P3 are inspired to pick up this edition, it might be helpful in teaching them to appreciate the source material.