It is a truth universally acknowledged that any serious student of English literature must be a postmodernist with a huge appetite for deconstruction and a cultivated disregard for the enjoyment of the books themselves. Who needs to wade through the 896 pages of Middlemarchwhen it’s so much more interesting – and often far quicker – to identify hermeneutical opposition within a narrative discourse, or apply hypertextual liminality to notions of the authorial voice?
Even though the invasion of cultural theory had only just begun when I was an English undergraduate, it was enough to instil in me a discernible guilt about reading novels for personal pleasure, for feasting myself on Jane Austen’s sparkling prose and barbed satire and delighting in the way her books propose a morality, an idea of how to live.
But now a new book has appeared that has done much to banish that guilt and restore my Leavis-inflected faith in literature as an expression of humanism. It’s a lavishly illustrated edition of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, comprehensively annotated by Patricia Meyer Spacks, professor of English at the University of Virginia. Suddenly I’ve been given a dispensation not merely to enjoy the novels but to care about every detail of the characters and their specific milieux.
Spacks loves detail. But never for its own sake; never in the service of pedantry. Her detail illuminates and refreshes the experience of reading. If you’ve ever wondered why the Bennet sisters spent so much time trimming their bonnets, Spacks can enlighten you. Material was so expensive that to stay fashionable the girls would have to upgrade existing garments as they wouldn’t be able to afford new ones.
Mealtimes are frequently used by Austen as plot devices but Spacks gives them added significance. The Bingleys look down on their country neighbours for serving dinner earlier than in more fashionable town circles. And Lady Catherine de Bourgh can afford not one but two separate breakfast parlours.
Money, of course, is the invisible main character of all of the novels, so our understanding of the real plight of the Bennet sisters is poignantly enhanced when Spacks reveals just how much of it a gentleman needs to run his household, how much the girls would inherit from their mother, as well as the invidious property laws that were responsible for disinheriting them.
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