“What Seems Simple”
By Jane Austen. Edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2010
More than any of Jane Austen’s other novels, Pride and Prejudice seems to lend itself to continual reinterpretation. The story of Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection and later acceptance of handsome, proud Mr. Darcy has inspired countless sequels, plays, musicals, modern-day rewritings (including Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary), film adaptations (including Bollywood and Mormon versions as well as the Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson and Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen films and the television series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), YouTube variations (Pride and Prejudice “Harry Potter Style,” for example, or “Gilmore Girls Style”), mashups (such as the bestselling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith), and even meta-fictional refutations of mashup versions (Margaret C. Sullivan’s hilarious series on “The League of Austen’s Extraordinary Gentlemen”). The novel has also inspired thousands of essays that begin with a variation on Austen’s famous first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—or with a list, such as the one I just wrote (or the one in Rohan Maitzen’s recent review of Clare Harman’s book Jane’s Fame), of adaptations, revisions, and mashups. Is Pride and Prejudice a fantasy that can mean whatever its readers and re-interpreters want it to mean?
In the new annotated edition of the novel edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, the answer is no. “Fantasies,” says Spacks, “don’t demand notes.” Reading Pride and Prejudice with Spacks as a guide illuminates the richness of Austen’s historical context, as the annotations draw attention to important material that might initially be missed. In addition to brief notes explaining details about everyday life in the novel (such as the hours during which a “morning visit” would take place—between 11am and 3pm), Spacks has room in the wide margins of this edition for longer passages that explain historical references. There are detailed and helpful discussions, for example, of what it meant to be an “accomplished woman” (with reference to Hester Chapone, Maria Edgeworth, and Austen’s own novella Catharine), of the significance of the militia in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, and of the health benefits, aphrodisiac effects, and psychological dangers of sea bathing at resorts. She includes illustrations, outlines some critical approaches to Austen’s work, and offers useful comparisons with Austen’s juvenilia as well as with her other novels and the works of her contemporaries. She also draws attention to particularly interesting details about character. When Elizabeth visits her newly-married friend Charlotte Collins in the parsonage at Hunsford, for example, she admires the way Charlotte is able to say of her pompous husband, without a hint of humor, that she encourages Mr. Collins to work in the garden as much as possible. The narrator tells us that “To work in his garden was one of his most respectable pleasures”— Spacks notes that “The comment may lead one to wonder what Mr. Collins’s other pleasures might have been.”
There is no shortage of editions of Pride and Prejudice: as Spacks points out in her introduction, usually at least two are published each year, and sometimes many more (six new editions per year in 1991, 1994, and 1995). There are other annotated editions as well, including the searchable hypertext available on The Republic of Pemberley website. But this beautifully produced and informative guide to reading Austen’s brilliant and beloved novel in its historical context will be a welcome addition to the library of anyone who has read, or plans to read, Pride and Prejudice more than once.
The many illustrations in this edition make it easier to visualize aspects of the novel without having to rely primarily on scenes from film and television adaptations. There are reproductions from the work of artists who have illustrated Pride and Prejudice over the years, including Hugh Thomson in 1894, but these are supplemented with images such as a print by Thomas Rowlandson of “A Gentleman’s Art Gallery,” which may bear some resemblance to the gallery Elizabeth sees at Darcy’s estate, Pemberley; a photograph of the elaborately decorated chimneypiece in Daylesford House, Gloucestershire, which helps readers picture the one at Rosings that Mr. Collins values so highly; and a picture of two women in “a low phaeton, with a nice little pair of ponies” from Humphry Repton’s Gallery of Fashion, which illustrates Mrs. Gardiner’s ideal for driving around the park at Pemberley with Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s refusal to join Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley, and Mrs. Hurst in a walk in the shrubbery at Netherfield because she thinks “The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth” is even more amusing when read alongside annotations and illustrations that highlight William Gilpin’s point about how to group cows in a landscape (he held that cows were much more picturesque than horses, and argued that three made a far better group than either two or four).
References to critics of Pride and Prejudice are necessarily selective, yet there are some limitations and imbalances in both the notes and the bibliography. For example, in a long note—a short essay, in fact—on Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley, Spacks contrasts Claudia L. Johnson’s argument in Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (1988) that Austen experiments with and challenges “conservative myths” with Marilyn Butler’s argument in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975) that Austen is a conservative, anti-Jacobin novelist. She refers to Johnson’s “subtly argued treatment” and to Butler’s “[e]qually well-argued” work, but the attempt at an editor’s impartiality is undermined by her relying on a quotation from Johnson, not Butler, to summarize the view that Austen is a conservative writer. Later in the same note, she argues that “Elizabeth’s feeling about being mistress of Pemberley might be interpreted as an aesthetic rather than an economic response,” emphasizing that “since Darcy’s taste is presumably operative in the choices of landscape design, Elizabeth’s perception of its lack of ‘awkwardness’ and of the proprietor’s willingness to allow nature rather than his own social pretensions to dictate arrangements is also a positive perception about Darcy’s character.” At this point, I expected Spacks to turn to Alistair Duckworth’s landmark book The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels (1971) and its discussion of politics, landscape, and the estate, but it wasn’t there, or anywhere else in the notes—perhaps because, like Butler, Duckworth argues in favor of Austen’s conservatism.
Duckworth’s book does appear in the section at the end of the book on “Further Reading.” This bibliography, however, includes only books about Austen’s life and work; it would have been much more useful to general readers as well as to specialists if it also included articles on Pride and Prejudice, especially the ones mentioned in the notes. The notes in Spacks’s edition invite us to learn from Austen specialists, but the absence of easily accessible citations in the bibliography could discourage readers from further exploration into the work of these specialists, and thus from further opportunities to join the debate about competing interpretations of Austen’s novel. For example, you might recall reading in the notes about Joan Klingel Ray’s intriguing argument that the windows at Rosings, paid for by Lady Catherine’s late husband, offer a clue to the idea that the De Bourgh family is in fact nouveau riche. This idea would certainly undermine Lady Catherine’s arrogant pride in the history of her family and Darcy’s. But if you wanted to look up the article for more details, to decide for yourself if the argument is persuasive, you would have to flip back through the book again to find the note with the bibliographical information. The suggestions for further reading also do not include Jane Austen’s Letters (edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 1995)—or, ironically, any of Austen’s other novels.
It is a further limitation of this edition that the focus is strictly on eighteenth and early nineteenth-century contexts, and primarily secular contexts, for Austen’s work. For instance, when Elizabeth insists to Darcy that “people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them forever,” Spacks says that, unlike the authors of eighteenth-century fiction, who depict characters as “incapable of changing in essentials,” Jane Austen “appears to believe in the possibility of more radical change,” but the note stops short of suggesting any sources for this belief. Information on Austen’s responses to the Christian model of repentance and moral education would be useful here, perhaps with reference to one of the many books and articles on Austen and religion, such as Michael Giffin’s Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England (2002), Gene Koppel’s The Religious Dimension of Jane Austen’s Novels (1988), or Irene Collins’s Jane Austen and the Clergy (1994) and Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter (1998), none of which is mentioned in either the notes or the list for further reading.
If this edition focused more on religious as well as contemporary historical contexts for the novel, Spacks might have highlighted such details as an echo of the general Confession from the Book of Common Prayer, in the narrator’s description of Elizabeth’s repentance for her initial judgment of Darcy. In the words of the prayer, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed…. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings”; in the words of the narrator giving Elizabeth’s thoughts, “Oh! how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him.” As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, Austen would have been familiar with liturgical language. But she does not merely echo the words and forms of religion: the process that Elizabeth goes through in the novel can be read as a moral and spiritual transformation, a painful examination of her mind and heart that leads her to contrition. Jane Austen’s language and her politics are best understood with reference to religious and secular works prior to, as well as during, her own historical period.
At several points, Spacks comments on the way Elizabeth “differs sharply from most conventional novelistic heroines.” She notes that “the saucy girl was already a well-established fictional and dramatic character,” saying that she was usually a secondary character rather than a heroine, but limits her references to earlier works to eighteenth century novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison, Frances Burney’s Cecilia, and Robert Bage’s Hermsprong. The earliest example of the “saucy girl” given—and the only case in which she is a heroine—is Millamant in William Congreve’s play The Way of the World (1700). These comments are useful as far as they go, but the obvious omission here is Shakespeare. References to witty, independent heroines such as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind in As You Like It, or Rosaline in Love’s Labours Lost would highlight Austen’s imaginative engagement with the literary tradition well beyond the works of her contemporaries, while still emphasizing her originality in placing such a heroine at the center of a novel.
As Spacks rightly says in her introduction, “What seems simple in the reading turns out less simple in the writing.” Pride and Prejudice, for all its sparkle, its lightness and brightness, is a complex, richly textured, innovative work that explores serious moral and political questions. “Writing notes,” concludes Spacks, “revealed that more than fantasy operates in Austen’s construction of plot and showed how complicated an apparently straightforward novel can be.” She points to a passing reference about a private being flogged, and suggests that when we pay attention to such details and consider how common flogging was in the militia of the time, we learn more about the heartlessness of Elizabeth’s sisters Kitty and Lydia, but we also may begin to wonder “why the Bennets respond enthusiastically to the romance of the military but never concern themselves with military functioning.” Even though the novel has a happy ending, in which a relatively poor but lively and intelligent woman marries a rich, handsome, and clever man, it is not merely a fantasy. As Spacks makes clear, this is a novel closely tied to its historical context, where privates are flogged and women’s opportunities are severely limited.
I would add that the novel also reminds us of our own society’s ability to focus on private life even in the context of war. The Bennets are, like many people, more worried about their own economic future than about the lives of people they do not know. Yet Pride and Prejudice is not simply a fairy tale about marrying a man with money. Austen shows that the most important goal for her heroine is not marriage; instead, she suggests that it ought to be knowledge of herself and of her world. This is above all a novel in which interpretation, re-interpretation, and moral improvement are central. Pride and Prejudice itself recommends the exercise of re-reading, as Elizabeth discovers at the heart of the story when she finds she must read and re-read Mr. Darcy’s letter in order to understand the past clearly, and in order to correct the fanciful interpretations of people and situations that she has allowed herself to entertain. The heart of the novel is not the wedding day, “the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters,” but the famous passage in which Elizabeth exclaims, “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
Both specialists and fans will find it a great pleasure to read, learn from, and argue with Spacks’s annotated edition of this classic novel. I would recommend that any reader supplement Spacks’s notes with critical analysis of Austen and religion, and with a healthy dose of Shakespeare. Specialists will also continue to rely on the Cambridge University Press edition of Pride and Prejudice, edited by Pat Rogers, for its authoritative note on the text, for its information about publishing history, and for Deirdre Le Faye’s chronology of Austen’s life and works (none of which has a parallel here), along with its own detailed explanatory notes. First-time readers will probably find the notes in Spacks’s edition overwhelming, and will likely want to find another edition that allows them to focus on the story. But the best thing to do after reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time is to read it again—and reading it for the second (or third, or fiftieth) time in this edition is an excellent choice that will continue to increase the pleasures of reading Jane Austen.