Inquiring Reader: This interview is with Patricia Meyer Spacks, the editor of Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition. Dr. Spacks, the Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia, has written a number of books, including ”The Adolescent Idea,” ”The Female Imagination,” “Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels,” “Reading Eighteenth-Century Poetry (Blackwell Reading Poetry),” “The female imagination,” and various studies of 18th-century literature. Her most recent undertaking, the annotation of Jane Austen’s most beloved and popular novel, resulted in a beautiful and elucidative book. I know that Jane Austen lovers will find this illustrated volume a useful and informative addition to their book collection.
How old were you when you first read Jane Austen and which book was it? Were you instantly taken by her writing, or did you develop an appreciation for her over time? Why?
I was probably ten or eleven years old when I first read Pride and Prejudice. I wish I remembered what I saw in it then; I’ve often had the same wondering about college students of mine who read the book early, because now it and the rest of Austen’s novels seem to me very much books intended for grown-ups. For some reason, though–perhaps because of its plot’s resemblance to those of familiar fairy tales–I loved P and P on first reading and read it several times more before ever studying it. As for “develop[ing] an appreciation”: one of the wonderful things about Austen (and other great writers) is that you can appreciate her novels in different ways over time and develop gradually wider areas of appreciation. This is one reason, I think, why many people frequently reread Austen, even as often as every year. Like many others, I have appreciated her for different reasons as I keep rereading her novels.
How did you come up with the idea of writing this book? What were some of the challenges in researching the information?
The book wasn’t my idea. John Kulka, who became my editor at Harvard University Press, came up with the idea and persuaded me to execute it. That indeed took some persuasion, because I was engrossed with another project at the time he proposed it, but I finally agreed because I had read the novel probably 40 or 50 times; had taught it to college freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, and graduate students, as well as one faculty seminar; and thought I could pretty much annotate it out of my head. Big mistake! I learned a great deal in the course of annotating it, but I don’t recall any particular challenges. Every time I decided that something needed annotating, I had no difficulty finding the information I needed.
I am curious how you decided which sections of Pride and Prejudice required annotation, and how much explanation a term or concept needed. Also, how did you decide on which images to include?
As I said earlier, I’ve taught Pride and Prejudice many times; therefore I had a good idea what words were likely to cause students difficulty. So I started there, annotating language, with special attention to words that we still use but that meant something different in Austen’s time. Beyond that, it was just a matter of paying attention to the text and of thinking about how Austen’s knowledge and assumptions differed from our own. Sometimes one thing led to another. For example, I started wondering why the novel specified Brighton as the place where the militia were stationed. I read a book on eighteenth-century Brighton and learned that because of the nature of the harbor, that was the locale thought the most likely for invasion from France. That made me think about the Napoleonic Wars, which Austen is thought to have ignored, and I was able to discover and annotate a number of references to war that it’s easy to miss.
In this kind of book, though, it’s not always a matter of how much explanation is “needed.” I had plenty of room to annotate whenever I thought of something about the text that struck me as interesting, and room to include quotations from other critics that suggested points of view different from my own. Many of the notes suggest connections between Pride and Prejudice and other works of Austen, including her letters.
About the images: John Kulka, my wonderful editor, found most of them. I came across some in my own reading. For instance, in establishing a text I used a first edition of Pride and Prejudice in the Houghton Library at Harvard. The books–the novel was in three volumes–had belonged to Amy Lowell and contained her bookplate. Moreover, they originally belonged to a circulating library and had the original wrappers, specifying the fees for different levels of borrowing and the rules of the establishment. I very much wanted images of the cover, the bookplate, and the text—and they’re in my book. As with the notes, necessity didn’t govern the choices: we looked for images that were beautiful in themselves and that illuminated some aspect of Austen’s period.
What were some of your favorite sources for information and where or how did you access them? Which of them do you think a serious Janeite should absolutely have in her library collection?
I used the internet, the Harvard University libraries, and my personal library as sources. The only “favorite” source I can think of is the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, which was indispensable–and I suppose I think it’s indispensable for any serious student of any literature from the past. It’s available on line now, and the on line edition is both more flexible and more up-to-date than the printed one. Otherwise, I used many many different sources, and I can’t think of any that I think Janeites MUST have.
Which author/s among Jane Austen’s contemporaries do you think exerted the most influence on her while she was writing First Impressions/Pride and Prejudice?
Maria Edgeworth, Austen’s contemporary, and Frances Burney, her predecessor. Pride and Prejudice contains some apparent allusions to Burney’s novel, Evelina, and the title itself may come from Burney’s second novel, Cecilia. Austen praises Edgeworth in her letters, and although Pride and Prejudice doesn’t directly allude to any Edgeworth novel, it takes up some of the issues that interested Edgeworth.
Thank you so much for your illuminating thoughts, and good luck with the book!
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