Furze is a plant found all over England. It covers Egdon Heath, the forbidding wasteland in Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native,” and when I first read the novel, many years ago, I conjured up a vivid and completely inaccurate picture of what it looked like. I envisioned furze as a tangle of bare, black and gnarled stalks — a bonsai version of the leafless evil trees in Walt Disney’s “Snow White.” In fact furze is the same plant as gorse, the yellow-flowered shrub that Winnie-the-Pooh falls into. My reading was factually false but imaginatively true to the spirit of Hardy’s bleak, oppressive landscape.Want more?
Do details like this matter? The question posed itself, again and again, as I read “The Annotated Pride and Prejudice,” published this month. David M. Shapard, the editor, does not merely sprinkle a few footnotes here and there. Each and every page of Jane Austen’s text has a facing page of explanatory notes, more than 2,300 of them all told. Some are as brief as a word or two; others amount to small essays. No one, working diligently through novel and notes, will ever fall victim to what I now think of as the furze fallacy.
Mr. Shapard explains absolutely everything. He restores the proper contemporary meanings to word like “condescending” (polite to inferiors) and “vicious” (inclined to vice). “Fun,” it turns out, was a vogue word, the “awesome” of its day, which is why the flighty Lydia Bennet — the foolish sister who runs away with the despicable George Wickham — uses it a lot. Mr. Shapard sorts out the differences among a phaeton, a gig, a chaise and a curricle, distinctions as clear to Austen’s readers as the difference between a Volvo and a Porsche is to us.
All the details of day-to-day English life around 1796 come under inspection: currency, card games, fashions, dance steps, etiquette, mealtimes and the subtle gradations of social class. When Mr. Collins, the unctuous parson, is invited to sit at the foot of the table by the grand Lady Catherine de Bourgh, he is gratified, not insulted. The foot of the table was the second most desirable spot. When Elizabeth Bennet and her party are served grapes, nectarines and peaches at Pemberley, Darcy’s fabulous estate, it means something. As Mr. Shapard explains, “All three fruits, which had become more popular over the 18th century, tended to be grown by the wealthy, for they do best in warmer climates and thus in Britain they generally need to be grown under glass or next to heated walls, which adds to the cost of their cultivation.”
Any reader who sticks with the program and absorbs the wealth of material that Mr. Shapard offers will, insofar as such a thing as possible, read “Pride and Prejudice” as it was read and understood at the time of its publication, with all the period details in place and correctly interpreted. But the novel, in most respects, remains the same. The reader who does not know a farthing from a guinea, it’s safe to say, will nonetheless grasp the great drama of attraction and repulsion that plays out between Darcy and Elizabeth. The cut and thrust of their conversation is timeless. Generations of young women who do not know the first thing about an entailed estate or a quadrille will recognize in Austen’s heroine a kindred spirit, a contemporary, a valued ally in the eternal war between the sexes.
How can this be? Austen was a stickler for accuracy. Like most of the great 19th-century novelists, she reported on her surroundings with loving attention to detail, creating her world fact by closely observed fact. Yet with time, details lose their meaning. Who, a century from now, will understand what a yuppie was, or text-messaging, or the meaning of an Armani suit?
In an 1816 foreword to “Northanger Abbey,” begun in 1798 and finished in 1803, Austen warned readers that the world she described might seem unfamiliar. “The public are entreated to bear in mind,” she wrote, “that 13 years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” Thirteen years! If English readers at the time were puzzled, how on earth are American, Japanese or Russian readers in the 21st century supposed to make head or tails of what they read? Yet they do.
On the other hand, reanimating the details does enrich one’s reading. They can illuminate and sometimes enlighten. Most facts are merely dated equivalents of present-day realities — one form of currency for another — but others help explain character and motivation.
That’s why there’s a niche market for annotated editions and period guides. A while back Daniel Pool responded to a crying need with “What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew,” a whirlwind tour of day-to-day life in 19th-century England, with plentiful examples from Trollope, Thackeray, Eliot and Hardy. It tilts heavily toward the Victorians, whose world, with its railroads and factory towns and gaslighted streets Austen would not have recognized.
Deirdre Le Faye narrows the focus in “Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels,” a literate, highly informed survey of early-19th-century English life, followed by chapters on each of Austen’s novels, with well-chosen illustrations of fashion, furniture and houses. Austen cared about these things, and her characters’ lives revolved around them. Knowing what they were, exactly, makes it possible to enter that world more easily.
Austen is a special case. Certain writers create worlds that readers do not want to leave, ever. Extreme devotees of Austen do not simply enjoy the novels, they want to sit in the living room at Longbourn with the Bennet sisters, drinking tea and analyzing Darcy’s behavior. An entire subliterary genre, the Regency romance, exists to satisfy this desire. The fog-shrouded London of Sherlock Holmes is also enchanted territory, as well as Lewis Carroll’s dreamscapes, and it’s no coincidence that Holmes and Alice have attracted dedicated annotators.
Martin Gardner, decades ago, produced the exemplary “Annotated Alice,” as well as “The Annotated Snark,” recently updated and reissued as “The Annotated Hunting of the Snark.” Leslie S. Klinger, a tax planner with a consuming passion for the world’s greatest detective, recently edited “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” a lavish three-volume edition of the stories and novels with 3,000 notes. Strangely, no comparable cult exists for Dickens and Trollope, despite their popularity, and it’s a safe bet that no reader has ever wanted to inhabit the St. Petersburg of Dostoyevsky.
But what about the old offices of The New York Evening Sun? In “The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel,” Michael Sims has put together a broad sampling of the poems and dispatches allegedly written by a cockroach named Archy for Don Marquis’s column, The Sun Dial. Archy first made his appearance in 1916. Jumping headfirst on a typewriter keyboard after hours, he banged out short notes, poems, strange rants and little tales of life in the office after hours, when the lights went out and assorted insects gathered round for a bit of conversation. Sometimes Mehitabel, an alley cat claiming to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra, appeared on the scene to spin her own tales of life and love on the streets. Their world is as inviting to me as Jane Austen’s Hampshire.
Marquis and his little friend breathed the same rarefied comic air as Krazy Kat and W. C. Fields. Newspaper humor does not usually age well. The great columnists of the 1920s and ’30s, giants like O. O. McIntyre and Franklin P. Adams, are period curiosities today, but Archy stands tall, a wickedly funny, philosophical wiseguy with a brilliant command of pungent American slang.
I refer readers unfamiliar with the brilliant bug to his account of an interview with a mummified pharaoh at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The conversation is an exchange of preposterous salutations, with Archy addressing the mummy as “my regal leatherface,” “my imperial pretzel” and “imperial fritter,” and the mummy responding in kind. “Greetings, little scatter-footed scarab,” the mummy begins, a warm-up to “my little pest” and “my scampering whiffle snoot.” No footnotes required, really, just an ear.
Mr. Sims annotates lightly, explaining topical references. His main textual contribution is putting Archy’s columns in proper chronological order and using the original newspaper versions.
A note can be a dangerous thing. Consider “The Annotated Lolita,” a steady seller ever since it was first published in 1970. Alfred Appel Jr., a worshipful Nabokovian, plods through the text, explaining what, in most cases, needs no explanation. Unwittingly he does an uncanny impression of Charles Kinbote, the mad annotator whose scholarly notes take over the narrative poem in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” like a parasite consuming its host.
Nabokov, as it happens, went on to perform an Olympian feat of annotation in his mammoth translation of “Eugene Onegin,” with three volumes of notes to one of text. Many of the notes address precisely the kind of questions that “The Annotated Pride and Prejudice” deals with. For anyone curious about the rules of engagement when Lensky and Onegin face off in their duel, Nabokov goes into all the details.
Readers who complete “The Annotated Pride and Prejudice” have a leg up when tackling “So You Think You Know Jane Austen?” This challenging quiz book, intended for professional-grade Austen readers only, arranges questions, in four ascending levels of difficulty for each novel. Some questions are short, factual and to the point, like “How old is Darcy?” (The answer is 28.) Others require interpretation. Why, for instance, does Wickham elope with Lydia, since he is a mercenary cad and she has no fortune? The authors, John Sutherland and Deirdre Le Faye, need more than a page to answer this one.
The Austen quiz is great fun, to use a word that Austen would not approve. There should be one for every author in the canon, but at the moment, the only companion is “So You Think You Know Thomas Hardy?” If there’s anything in there about furze, I am ready.
Here's a link to a few of the questions in So You Think You Know Jane Austen? and here's a list of the books mentioned in the article.