Reading David M. Shapard’s annotations of Jane Austen’s Emma is such an effortlessly enlightening affair that it would be easy for a layperson to miss what a painstaking business it must have been to compile such a wealth of information. In this new annotated version, every page of Jane Austen’s master work has a facing page with notes that give insight not only into the culture and mores of Austen’s time, but also into Jane Austen’s habits as a writer, and the personalities and motivations of the characters. Almost unerringly, Shapard deftly chooses the most relevant information and leaves it for the reader at exactly the moment in the book when it is most useful. His annotations showcase an encyclopedic knowledge of Austen’s work and early nineteenth century society as well as the ability to tailor this knowledge to the enthusiastic or even scholarly Austen reader.
However, those outside the categories of enthusiast and scholar would be well advised to make their initial acquaintance with Austen elsewhere. One could choose to skip the annotated facing pages, but their presence is more or less unavoidable, and though this was at least my fourth or fifth reading of Emma, it was also my longest, as some of the annotations are themselves half a page or more long. Shapard makes a concession to the first time reader in the form of well-marked “Plot Spoiler” notes: because Emma contains several mysteries, it bears re-reading well, since one can go back and see the clues that Austen has carefully laid out. Shapard’s Plot Spoilers point these out to make it easier for a student of the novel to see how the mysteries are built. It’s the literary version of a director’s commentary DVD: you watch the movie by itself first, then watch the commentary if you’re really interested. Readers looking to simply enjoy the novel without interruption should pick up a copy with notes in the back, flipping back occasionally to get a handle on anything they didn’t understand, but mostly allowing the delectable precision of Austen’s language and the flawless structure of Emma to wash over them.
To the Austen devotee, there is little need for anyone to explain the appeal of such a comprehensive annotation. Anyone who has ever wondered why it is so especially impressive for a family to own a barouche box will be delighted to read notes about several different kinds of carriages and their functions. The reader who has only thus far felt her way vaguely around the subtleties of class and status in Austen’s world will gain new clarity from the detailed descriptions of exactly where Mr. Robert Martin, gentleman farmer, stands in the Highbury social scheme, and why it is so particularly insulting of Emma to make fun of Miss Bates, the late vicar’s spinster daughter. The illustration of these fine points is imperative to a real understanding of Austen’s works. Those who dislike Austen often claim that her books are bereft of passion, that they are too polite. But the shades of meaning in a single turn of phrase, in the touch of a hand, are so myriad that those without a deeper knowledge of the expectations of the time will miss just how much it means for Mr. Knightley to hold Emma’s hand even a moment longer than usual, or how one could consider a man and woman to be all but engaged simply because they visit each other frequently.
In such an expansive undertaking, it would be easy for a scholar, steeped in so many degrees of subtlety, to occasionally drift slightly outside the sphere of relevance, and indeed several of the illustrations in the book are only tangentially related to what is passing in the novel. For instance, Mr. John Knightley’s being a lawyer hardly necessitates an illustration of a judge. The descriptions of his and Isabella’s children don’t merit an illustration of a woman with a child. Then, too, some readers might find certain annotations to be redundant, as Shapard takes care to point out, for example, just about every instance of Emma’s being vain– and Emma’s vanity is not a trait that needs excessive highlighting. It is in full force for most of the novel.
Still, readers who have not yet been converted to Austenites, or readers who claim that such a conversion would be impossible, can gain some understanding of what Shapard’s achievement means to the rest of us by thinking of The Annotated Emma as Pottermore for Austen fans. Casual Harry Potter fans may not care to know what J.K. Rowling’s ghost plots were, or what happened to Neville Longbottom after the books ended, but others will happily read paragraphs on what brand of wizardly toilet paper Harry buys (and yes, I count myself as part of the latter group). The difference is that with Jane Austen, even a guide as astute as David Shapard can only unfold so many layers of meaning for us. Austen imagined meticulously detailed microcosms of a living and breathing world that still bears so much relevance to our own as to be endlessly significant.