Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Annotated Sense and Sensibility, Edited by David M. Shapard

I can think of no better way to end both the year and The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge than with a a review of The Annotated Sense and Sensibility by David M. Shapard. Like his editions of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion (read my review if the latter here), Mr. Shapard not only displays a sincere love and respect for our dear Miss Austen, but also an incredible understanding of her intentions, humor, and the era in which she lived. I adore his annotated volumes and consider them fundamental reading for all Janeites with an academic interest in her work.

When I read Mr. Shapard's annotations, I feel like I've been transported into an intensive class on Austen. When I reviewed his Persuasion, I quoted extensively from his annotations as a means of conveying this sensation. Unfortunately, the clock rapidly clicking towards year's end, as well as the demands of a six month old, do not allow me the leisure to repeat that effort here. Instead, I will confine myself to pointing out his particular attention to "the cult of sensibility", it's fundamental importance to this novel (especially in the development of Marianne's character), and his success at explaining it to a modern audience. I quote from his introduction:
... the theory of moral sense, was an influential philosophical doctrine that explained morality as the product of an instinctive sense of benevolence in human beings. This sense allowed people to understand moral principals, served as proof of the validity of moral laws, and gave people a reason to act morally, since such actions would naturally produce pleasure while immoral actions would produce pain.
In these principals lies the core of Marianne's philosophy. Often we dismiss her as merely a spoiled teenager and fail to understand that her actions are grounded in a doctrine that was pervasive at the end of the 18th century. Austen directly challenges these notions, advocated by many of the great minds of the day - a rather bold move for a young woman of rural origins. For example, when Marianne clearly trespasses on the rules of decorum when she and Willoughby tour Allenham, she and Elinor have the following exchange:
"I have never spent a pleasanter morning in my life."

"I am afraid," replied Elinor, "that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety."

"On the contrary, nothing can be a stronger proof of it, Elinor; for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure."
Mr. Shapard's annotations on this scene point right back to the notion of Moral Sense, and it is in this manner that he emphasizes this fundamental aspect of Marianne's character throughout the book, constantly reminding us of what would be obvious to Austen's contemporaries, though it is a rather alien notion to the modern audience. My previous readings of Sense and Sensibility have certainly been informed by the knowledge I have of 18th century philosophies, but it took Mr. Shapard's annotations to illuminate the pervasive extent to which Austen dwells on these subjects. I finished the book with renewed appreciation for Austen's brilliance and a far better understanding of her authorial intentions. This book is so much more than an excellent romance; it is a carefully worked philosophical essay.

For more on the cult of sensibility I refer you the excellent post that Laurel Ann Nattress, coincidentally our Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge host, wrote for the last installment of The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration at My Jane Austen Book Club, entitled Marianne Dashwood: A Passion for Dead Leaves and Other Sensibilities. Mr. Shapard's Annotated Emma will be out in March. I can hardly wait!

Happy New Year everybody!

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