Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Annotated Persuasion, Edited by David M. Shapard

I absolutely adored David M. Shapard's annotated Pride and Prejudice, and so when I learned that he had come out with an annotated Persuasion, I was quick to purchase a copy. Unfortunately, in order to devote to it the time I wanted to, it took me a while to get around to reading it, let alone, once I commenced, finishing it. Reading an annotated edition is not like sitting down with a novel and consuming it, cover to cover, in my normal manner. It is more like studying a text in a class, with all the supplementary information that accompanies such a setting. Mr. Shapard's books are laid out so that Austen's text is on the left side of a page, with all his notes and observations listed on the right. This makes the information easily accessible, but as it also lends itself to skipping ahead to examine an illustration of a carriage, or consult a map, as well as flipping back to reread a prior note that touches on the same subject, the speed at which you read is extraordinarily slow. The effort is worth it, as even for someone like me, who has read these novels countless times, new and different ways of perceiving and thinking about the text emerge. The only downside is that, unlike in a class, when I disagree with something Mr. Shapard asserts, there is no one on hand to debate the point with me.

Mr. Shapard beautifully illuminates certain points in the text that I had not previously considered in such a light, furthering my understanding of the manners and customs of the Regency Era. For example, regarding the character of Nurse Rooke, he provides information that I did not formerly have about the role nurses played in this society. When she is first introduced into the narrative ("[Mrs. Smith] had been particularly fortunate in her nurse, as a siter of her landlady, a nurse by profession") he notes:
The term "profession" applied to nurses at the time only in a very loose sense, for there was no regular training or certification for nurses, let alone any kind of organization. Most nursing was done at home, by family members and servants, as seen earlier in the cases of little Charles Musgrove and Louisa. Among those who earned a living as nurses, some worked in the small number of hospitals existing at the time; a much larger number worked as private nurses like the person mentioned here. In either case, a nurse had a status similar to that of a servant and performed cleaning as well as strictly nursing tasks. This nurse's periodic unemployment and need to live with her sister indicate the precarious nature of her position.

While neither the lack of an organized nursing profession, nor the status held by nurses, was surprising to me (having read the works of Florence Nightingale), I had not previously thought about Nurse Rooke's dependence on her sister for a home before. This becomes more interesting later, when Mrs. Smith makes the following comments about Nurse Rooke's perspective during her revelations about Mr. Elliot:
... I do not think nurse in her heart is a very strenuous opposer of Sir Walter's making a second match. She must be allowed to be a favourer of matrimony, you know, and (since self will intrude) who can say that she may not have some flying vision of sttending the next Lady Elliot, through Mrs. Wallis's recommendation?
On this occasion Mr. Shapard notes:
Nurse Rooke would naturally favor matrimony - which at that time almost always involved at least the attempt to have children - from a wish for more opportunities to work as a monthly nurse for women giving birth. She would be especially likely to find such employment from affluent women, as any wife of Sir Walter would be. In a letter Jane Austen shows the importance of recommendations when she writes of someone getting a nurse who, though with "no particular charm either of person or manner," is pronounced by local people "to be the best nurse that ever was" (NO. 17, 1798).
Now here is an "ah ha" moment. I had never before paused to consider the above words of Mrs. Smith's in any detail, considering that they are slipped in amidst such dramatic and pivotal disclosures as those she makes in this scene. Suddenly Nurse Rooke's motivations have meaning beyond idle gossip, and the additional information regarding Austen's letters not only provides an excellent example of the kind of supplementary information Mr. Shapard incorporates, but also sheds light on an earlier note regarding Nurse Rooke, gossip, and recommendations. Returning to the scene in which we first meet Mrs. Smith and, subsequently, Nurse Rooke is introduced, Mr. Shapard writes:
Nurse Rooke's frequent sharing of interesting gossip may be another sign of her shrewdness and intelligence. It would be a useful service for a nurse to perform for a confined patient, one that might raise the patient's spirit - at a time when physical means of curing ailments were very limited - and that would enhance the value of the nurse's services, making te patient more likely to retain her and recommend her to others.
All together, the reader forms a far more in depth picture of this very minor character than would otherwise be attained. I offer up this very minor example of how Mr. Shapard's notes enhance the reading experience as it so well illustrated how easy it becomes to flip forward and back through the book, turning 500 pages into a far lengthier read. I can also use it to attest to what I believe is the failing of any endeavor of this sort, which I admit is not one I can reasonably hold Mr. Shapard responsible for, and that is my unquenchable desire for yet more information than can be reasonably provided. In this same scene, Anne makes a long statement regarding the unique opportunities "woman of that class ... if they be intelligent" have for making observations about humanity. This passage has long struck me as unique in Austen, providing the most detailed commentary she ever makes upon the serving class (and perhaps even expressing a bit of envy for it?), and Mr. Shapard lets it pass by without any relevant commentary. My complaints about this edition almost all center around similar moments when I just want more than Mr. Shapard, in all his exhaustiveness, supplies.

While I do not consider these annotated editions appropriate for a first time reader of Austen's novels, as the notes often reference events to come and episodes from her other novels, they are perfect for those of us who read and reread her books year after year. Furthermore, if you are a writer of JAFF, they are nearly invaluable resources, as the maps provided and, especially, the detailed chronologies of events are excellent sources of reference. When I wrote First Impressions, I kept a copy of Mr. Shapard's Pride and Prejudice with me all the time, and the ragged condition of this tomb attests to how often I turned to it. While reading his edition of Persuasion, I found inspiration for a "What if?" rewrite based upon this, my favorite Austen novel, a notion I have often considered but never found a satisfying way of pursuing. Unfortunately, this effort will have to wait until I complete my current projects, but I look forward to ravaging this book to the same degree that I did its predecessor. In the meantime, I am all anticipation for the release of his annotated Sense and Sensibility, due out on May 3rd, in perfect time to celebrate the book's bicentenary.  

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