Wednesday, October 9

Review: The Annotated Northanger Abbey

The Annotated Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen, Edited and Annotated by David M. Shapard
Anchor Books

Northanger Abbey (NA) falls outside of what I consider to be Jane Austen's Big Four novels (for the mixture of their quality and the enjoyment I get from them): Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma and Sense and Sensibility. However, having taken on writing this review, I am grateful for the opportunity to re-read NA after more than 20 years. Though much of it is very silly (intentionally so on the author's part), Austen's clever humor shines through, making re-reading worthwhile.

However, there is really no call for me to review NA as a novel. That is well-covered territory. What could be valuable is a review of David Shapard's annotations in this new edition. Perhaps the first thing to say is that there are many annotations. As the publisher's description describes it, the complete text of the novel is bound with 'more than 1,200 annotations on facing pages'. In fact, I concluded early on that if I had read all of the annotations, I would never have had time to complete the book, much less this review.

Among the annotations are:
-Explanations of historical context
-Citations from Austen’s life, letters, and other writings
-Definitions and clarifications
-Literary comments and analysis
-Maps of places in the novel
-An introduction, bibliography, and detailed chronology of events
-225 informative illustrations
I found many of the annotations helpful or interesting. Many of them I flew right by. Some of the 'definitions and clarifications', especially, are very minute, bordering on the obvious. That's okay; they could be useful for some readers. Next in order of usefulness were the 'explanations of historical context' and 'literary comments and analysis'. Again, some were fairly obvious, while others provided new information. Confession: I found myself reading some of the 'literary analysis' just for the fun of thinking more about the characters.

Mostly I enjoyed the maps and many of the illustrations. I particularly liked the floor plans and architectural pictures that helped to give a better sense of the setting, especially Bath which, unfortunately, I have not visited. There were more illustrations of style of dress than I cared for, but, again, they would certainly be enjoyed by some people, to say nothing of the comparative importance of clothing in Austen's novels. The editor included many caricatures from the period that didn't do much for me.

The chronology of events could be helpful to some people. The pages-long bibliography certainly looked exhaustive from my standpoint. The introduction was okay, but uncritical of Austen in any way, further strengthening my sense of the target audience of The Annotated NA.

I think the people who would most enjoy this book and want to own it are Austen fans who are true period devotees. For those of us who are simply Austen fans, borrowing or owning the novel by itself would probably suffice. That said, this series of editions of Austen's books by Shapard would be very valuable additions to the collection of any public or academic library. They would be especially useful for people who want to read Austen with understanding but feel a little in over their heads. It is certainly easy to imagine many high school book reports being improved if the student had access to the appropriate one of these books.

One more personal note: It was funny to read and enjoy this book again, even entering somewhat into the problems of the present and future happiness of the 17 year-old 'heroine' and the 26 year-old young man she admires, considering that I am now almost 20 years older that all of the young people in the book, my twin 14 year-olds, in fact, being much closer to them in age.
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