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Emma: An Annotated Edition

Emma: An Annotated Edition

Jane Austen, edited by Bharat Tandon

Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2012

The latest gorgeous entry in the Belknap Press’ growing library of annotated Jane Austen novels arrives, this time the mighty Emma under the exactingly careful guidance of Bharat Tandon of the University of East Anglia. Belknap has once again done its end of the job superbly: the book is a physical treat – luxuriantly over-sized, heavy with quality paper and solid binding, decked out in a beautiful cover and dozens of well-chosen illustrations throughout. This is one of the prettiest Jane Austen volumes available in bookstores (another, well worth your $25, is the leather-bound single-volume edition put out by Barnes & Noble) this season.

The Press handed the whole thing over to Professor Tandon, and this job, too, is brightly, superbly done. Emma is a long, curiously problematic novel written by Jane Austen at what is conventionally referred to as “the height of her powers” and published more or less anonymously in 1815 (and dedicated to the louche and oafish Prince Regent, her biggest fan). Austen chortled to her friends that in the headstrong, serenely meddling Emma Woodhouse – “handsome, clever, and rich,” queen bee of the little country enclave of Highbury – she had created a heroine nobody but herself could like, and when she placed this character front and center of the novel, Austen clearly accessed a freedom she hadn’t felt in her earlier books. The hint of stridency in Sense and Sensibility is entirely gone; the hint of mordancy in Mansfield Park is entirely gone; and something very different from the blinding, almost forensically witty surgeries of Pride and Prejudice is taking place. The breathless exclamation points give it away: our author is having fun. This makes it a tricky thing to read … and it must have made it a nightmare to annotate.

Tandon does an assured job. It’s true that in the Introduction to the whole thing there’s a worrying flirtation with some of the very worst nonsense of the strictly ‘literary criticism’ world, most notably critic Bill Brown’s notorious notion of the “thingness” of objects, in which he tells us “The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.”

That way lies madness, but Tandon only dabbles with it long enough to establish some sort of post-modernist street cred. The bulk of his work on this edition is refreshingly four-square and Bristol-fashion, and most of his comments only make the reader wish the Introduction were longer:

… there are times when navigating through the plot of Emma, with the unpredictable relations between its memorable events and its longueurs, can feel uncomfortably like swimming through gruel, too – after all, one never knows exactly when another morsel of proper narrative substance is going to emerge from the quotidian gloop that is so often the stuff of life in Highbury.

Any academic who can uncork something like ‘quotidian gloop’ can be trusted to have the readers’ best interests at heart.

The actual annotations that fill this volume display an astonishing range, as befits so rich a novel as Emma. The scholars Belknap chooses for these editions are all quick to acknowledge that, in very large part, Jane Austen can still be left alone safely with her readers – the simplest un-footnoted version of her stories will not fail to captivate. But there also be the need for some translation – more need as time goes on – and that’s where Tandon’s great forest of notes will be invaluable. And those notes have a smile-inducing variety; on one page chosen at random, this:

For all the celebrated precision of her style, Austen also makes refined use of the resources of creative imprecision, as witnessed by the effects she derives from phrases such as “something” and “a something.” For example, in vol. III, chapt. 9 of Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood claims, with the benefit of hindsight: “There was always a something, – if you remember, – in Willoughby’s eyes at times, which I did not like.” Perhaps the greatest poet of “something” at the time was Wordsworth, whose “Tintern Abbey” famously describes “a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused.”

comes right before this:

Gaiters were worn by men to cover the ankle and the lower part of the leg.

Emma: An Annotated Edition is a big, elaborate volume, uncongenial for the lap (those few unfortunate readers whose laps are already being flattened by a ponderous sleeping basset hound will find the extra burden trivial – all others will balk) but perfect for the lectern, the coffee table – or the reading desk, where its ample folds can absorb all manner of food-crumbs with ease. It’s a bottomlessly interesting volume, and it makes that rarest of things: the perfect smart gift to give a Jane Austen fan – who’ll otherwise be assaulted with the inevitable Fifty Shades of Pride and Prejudice and be rightly cranky about that.