misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Patricia Meyer Spacks at the JASNA-DC luncheon

Dear friends and readers,

I again make it my happy task to record another pleasant meeting of the JASNA-DC group (the last time was Christmas dancing) I and Izzy have joined: it took place at the Holiday Inn in Arlington. There was a luncheon, piles of a large beautiful book, sewn, fine paper, wide margins, felicitiously chosen illustrations: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: An annotated edition by Patricia Meyer Spacks, and Spacks herself come to talk to the group about her edition.

Just about all the copies were sold, and I splurged on one too.

Izzy and I arrived around 12, talked with a few people and I saw the line to buy the book. I did and Izzy took it over to our table and for most of the rest of the time when we weren't talking to people or eating and Prof Spacks had not begun her talk, Izzy looked it over. I looked it over tonight. 

The biggest treat it seems to me are the unusual pictures, for it should be said at the out set that if you buy this book you are partly buying a beautiful coffee-table kind of book. For the money and what's on offer, the good buy remains David M Shaparo's The Annotated Pride and Prejudice published by Anchor (Random House).  The information and annotation there does not get in the way -- I have this on the authority of some of my students. You can read the book through without ever looking at the full genuinely helpful and often pictorial annotations which are on the recto pages.  Shapard's is the encyclopedia the student who knows nothing about the 18th century might want; Professor Spacks's book provides a kind of "take" or reading of P&P through her more personal perceptive approach. 

A satiric picture of women's accomplishments

Prof. Spacks's talk was in fact basically a resume of part of her introduction to her book, and here I'll tell a little of what Spacks said about her procedures and edition.  She was invited to annotate an edition of P&P while she was doing another project and at first she was strongly reluctant. After all here was a book which didn't need any notes (Tony Tanner has famously edited an edition of P&P in the 1980s where he had one footnote), which a 14 year old girl could read without anything beyond the text itself.  Spacks was persuaded by a friend from Harvard. She herself knew the book very well, had read and taught it countless times.  She found it touching that the copy she was given had been owned by Amy Lowell.

The first thing to decide was what was the best way she could edit this book without spending the rest of her life on it. She thought of Martin Gardiner's annotated edition of Alice in Wonderland and felt that edition could authorize her to annotate loosely: to go off on intereting tangents.  She wanted to illuminate the text not just for first time readers but for those who've read the book many times.

She came to the conclusion she would annotate it as made up of individual words, looked to see if historical context were needed, and what literary works were alluded to.

Gilpin's Observations would be one such book (p. 88)

First words. She read the novel super-carefully, word by word. She was trying to reach people who don't understand the words but don't know they don't understand because the words have changed some.  One such word is "liberal."  In Austen's time it meant free from prejudice, also someone who enacts the conduct of a free man, i.e., an independent gentleman. The word "nice" meant more than discriminate carefully. Spacks found 18 different definitions and included these the way Gardiner were, a bit playfully. Nice meant foolish, ignorant, efficient, fastidious.  She found herself making up the history of the sofa.

Sir Thomas Banks, a chimney piece in Daylesford, an elaborate expensive ornamentation that Mrs Bennet would long for

Then historical and social context.  When Elizabeth and Jane return from London, Lydia is bursting over with news and among the items is her carelessly dropped information that a private was flogged. In context of inane and pretty details, this one stands out the way in The Rape of the Lock Pope's lin; "wretches hang that juryman may dine."  Spacks said in the British army/navy were notorious in their awful treatment of soldiers and sailors. Local militias were formed only in time of war and we see they are all over the place in P&P. Brighton was thought to be a place the French would invade because of its deep harbour. Yet the Bennets have no fear of Lydia's safety from invasion, rapine. In this era the officers lived well, dined off tables, the soldier lives in cold tents on the ground, sailors were pressed.  The way the authorities got away with it was severity of discipline.

A man about to be flogged.

P&P is a novel filled with war going on but you would not know it from the Bennets or their friends.  The point is how obtuse and blind this upper class privileged elite community is. It's also a novel where people dine and fuss about seating arrangements, who comes in and goes out of a room first. That these people care about. Spaces discovered women came into a room before men.  She read about and use information of curricles (two horses) versus the less admired gig (one horse). Of course a barouche landau is today's Rolls Royce.

Literary context was her last. There Prof. Spacks was in her element of course. The problem was to avoid over-annotating. After the talk when one woman asked Spacks what minor novel people don't know well she would advise us to read. Spacks cited Memoirs of Sidney Biddulph by Frances Sheridan (feminist, melancholy) and Hermsprong by Robert Gage (pro-French revolution principles)..

She concluded her talk by saying she's been embarrassed that P&P is her favorite of the six novels. The most paradigmatic of romance. but annotating it and coming into close contact many times with the text of the novel, Spacks decided it is nevertheless a serious book.  Just as with other books, the reader must read or find this out for herself but Spacks has here (I suggest) provided a framework which will bring out the seriousness and extent of social reach of the book. 

She concluded her argument thus:  she pointed us to its first sentence and chapter: what a predatory environment it suggests, how materialistic, and rank-based from previous generations. Now its last sentence is filled with gratitude towards the Gardiners; here we have a community based on human feeling. During much of the novel, Darcy is alone; Elizabeth too dwells apart. At the end of the novel they are in a self-enclosed garden which seems capable of further improvements :) and its pleasant surface (living at Pemberley remember) belies some of the hard economic familial and war realities we've seen.

At the close of her talk she said that Harvard (Belknap Press) was planning a book like this one for each of the six famous Austen novels and she will herself also edit Sense and Sensibility.

To repeat,
one of the pleasures and additions to knowledge Spacks's annotated P&P offers is unusual pictures. She really has a set which includes a number I've never seen; they are well placed and relevant. Thus this image of Bifrons Park is a house Austen really knew (as opposed to the many luxurious great houses used by film makers). It faces the tour around Pemberley Elizabeth and the Gardiners enjoy. Jan Siberechts (ca 1627-1703) was a Flemish artist who settled in England in the 1670s and made his name painting English country houses

Bifrons Park, Kent, 1695-1700

Dove Dale and Matlock are not inventions of  recent film-makers! For those (like me perhaps) who have felt the photograph of Elizabeth on top of a high stone cliff gazing out at a landscape out of whack with Austen's vision, a still repeated twice now in the Austen films (1995 P&P and 2005 P&P) but first found in the 1939 Wuthering Heights, think again.  Spacks's edition includes two engravings of precisely two of the places Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit and both resemble the mise-en-scenes of these movies.

Engraving by J. Bluck (1791-1819) after Thomas Barber (1768-1843), Dove Dale 4, from T. C. Hofland, Six Views of Derbyshire (1805). One of the spots Elizabeth and Gardiners visit, discussed by Elizabeth and Darcy

Matlock.  It's peaceful, alluring and note that Cassandra's drawing of Jane from the back is an imitation of this pose.

Spacks spoke extempore and seemed so relaxed and casual friendly. I wish she had gone on much longer.

Among the afterward conversation was a question on how Austen managed to get her books published -- what a disconnect the woman said between living in the country surrounded by relatives and the world of publishing. I suggested she was being anachronistic.  Sure today the book publishing world is highly organized with fiercely guarded turfs and thresholds, with prizes and such. But not the 1790s.  Things were not organized in the way they were in the mid-Victorian period. Authors got paid a lot  more, were more respected.  In the 1790s almost any one could get into print, so desperate were booksellers for stuff for their periodicals, but the pay was derisory. 10 pounds for Northanger Abbey, 10 pounds for Evelina. The audience for women's novels (as they were denigrated) were after all women; today costume is denigrated as about bonnets and beaux,

And so the novels are often for and about a woman's world, and the pleasures of costume drama include the hats.

A tradecard for inventing hats

Izzy and I left not soon after the speech and discussion time was over, as did a number of people.  There were people standing on line for Spaces to sign her book! The luncheon broke up much quicker than the dancing Xmas time. 

I spoke with a couple of old friends on the way out.  We had had a pleasant time. Spacks' speech showed how suggestive she could be while remaining light in approach.

Tags: epistolary novels, female archetypes, henry james, jane austen criticism, jane austen sequels, jane austens letters

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.