At first I was skeptical of the new Oxford World’s Classics reissues of Jane Austen’s famous novels. After all, didn’t I own a slew of editions from various well-known publishers already? And how different could each be from the other? The central core of these novels – Jane’s words – remains essentially unchanged, although a few of my books are illustrated, and one is the estimable Annoted Pride and Prejudice edited by David M. Shapard. So I asked myself: Why would Oxford University Press spend so much money and effort reissuing classics that it had first published in paperback form in 1980, and brought back in 1998, 2004, and now again this year?
Then I received my package of books from Oxford University Press. First, the cover illustrations are luscious. Pride and Prejudice’s jacket boasts a detail of a Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait of Mrs. Edward John Littleton. And second, this book contains the sort of information that rounds out the reading experience for both the experienced and novice reader.
I read recently that a reissue is only as good as its introduction. Written by scholars and authorities on the topic, a book’s introduction should add to our understanding of the work. Fiona Stafford, a Reader in English at the University of Oxford, does just that. Her essay discusses how Jane engages the reader with the text, and how she invites our speculations about the characters.
Part of [the novel's] satisfaction, perhaps, is the persistent involvement of the reader in the narrative. Again and again, we are led into mild questioning about what has taken place, and thus encouraged to come up with a workable solution. Conversations between Jane and Elizabeth frequently offer alternative explanations for conduct or character and, in so doing, engage the reader in the debate. Is Mr. Bingley in love with Jane? Can Mr. Wickham be believed? How can Charlotte Lucas be engaged to Mr. Collins? – p. xix
Ms. Stafford also discusses the history of the epistolary novel and its influence on this book. In an age of strict conventions, letters allowed people to write down their emotions and show their true character. Think of the tone of Lydia’s careless letters after she elopes with Mr. Wickham, or the impact that Mr. Darcy’s impassioned letter of explanation had on Elizabeth. This is the first time in the novel that we are treated exclusively to his voice and point of view, and her reaction (and the reader’s) is a powerful one.
This Pride and Prejudice reissue is full of features that teachers and students of fine literature will especially love. They are:
- A Chronology of Jane Austen, which lists important events in Jane’s life against an historical backdrop.
- A select bibliography. Thanks to Google reader, many of these references can be found online.
- Two appendixes: One titled “Rank and Social Status”, the other simply titled “Dancing.”
- Textual notes, which compare various printed editions
- Explanatory notes. These annotations, though not as extensive as David Shapard’s, help to explain obscure customs and terms from days gone by.
The Jane Austen reissues by Oxford World’s Classics came out on June 15th. As far as my thrifty pocketbook is concerned, the price of this quality trade paperback novel is just right.
Click here for my review of Lady Susan:A vicious Jewel