The More Things Change . . .
It’s difficult for me, a voracious reader and devoted writer, to admit that I have a long list of classics I haven’t yet read. Of those I have read, there are several I haven’t fully absorbed. I think this has to do with attention span and time. It takes dedication and focus to get into the rhythm of novels that are peppered with words like thither and references to obscure customs about which I know next to nothing. When undertaking a nineteenth century novel, I often wish I was back in high school English class, where we were led by Mr. Klausner’s sharp and enthused mind in dissecting sentences for their true messages, informed by customs of the time and myriad possibilities for word meaning. I enjoyed these dissections many times more than the formaldehyde-laced varieties that took place upstairs in the biology lab. I savored the slow unfolding of the stories, which benefitted from the class’ s animated discussion. Everyone should have a Mr. Klausner.
My column here at BiblioBuffet is always a conjoined endeavor, and the process of linking two books is a large part of my joy in writing it. But this week I committed to rereading Jane Austen’s Emma on its own. This thick, new edition, the Annotated Emma, is really two books in one. The left page of every spread has the text of the classic novel, while the right page is brimming over with footnotes and images to lend detailed context to the centuries-old story. I came to view David M. Shapard, the annotator and editor, as my personal, portable Mr. Klausner. So many of the sentences I read before with only a partial understanding were illuminated by Shapard’s persistent research and patient explanations.
I am a child of the information technology explosion, and I haven’t yet thrown my TV out the window, so I am used to distraction. But the distraction of an entire page of explanations next to every page of story was a new kind for me, and it took some getting used to. Over time I decided that I am not as scholarly as I might like to imagine myself, so I saved the footnote reading for the truly perplexing or unusual segments of text. Shapard seems to annotate on the assumption that some of the readers might not infer meanings of even relatively simple words, and I didn’t always need that degree of explanation (although I think it was better for him to err on the side of thoroughness; he also shows his thoughtful side by including a bold, capitalized sign to warn of impending spoiler alerts).
The pictures had great appeal to the part of my brain that wasn’t reading and added another layer to the story. They confirmed my impression that females of the time were viewed as extremely frail and dependent, and highly ornamental, which makes Emma’s very real, opinionated mind even more refreshing. She makes assumptions, acts judgmental, and screws things up in full-color, 3D, relatable style. The comedy’s in the recognition—we’ve all been there.
I found myself surprised quite often by the conventions of Emma’s time. Early in the book her friend Harriet, soon to be the object of Emma’s matchmaking, is referred to as “the natural daughter of somebody.” The stigma associated with illegitimacy was so great that the language surrounding an out-of-wedlock union was exceedingly vague. Class, at the time, was a dominant force that dictated relationships and acceptable conduct and had the power to close off entire realms of possibility to those born to the lower tiers. Some men couldn’t technically qualify as gentlemen, so they were “gentlemen-like.” Women without the benefit of high pedigree were routinely referred to as “less worthy.” Another jarring realization I had was that the apparent obsession by many in Emma’s circle with the need to stay dry and avoid catching a draft was not as ludicrous as it initially seems. This was a time when many children never reached adulthood, and tuberculosis (aka consumption) lurked around every corner—antibiotics were not even a figment in the minds of medical experts.
Still, while my American mentality has trouble comprehending the limitations of class, even in our democracy it’s still a weighty factor, perhaps trickier now because it’s less clearly delineated on the surface. Women, under some circumstances, are still dismissed as having less worthy opinions. Always there will be humans driven by both pure and selfish motives. Always there will be inept matchmakers with few insights into their own personalities and love lives—the title of the Emma-inspired movie Clueless was aptly chosen. Always, along with Emma, all of us have some hope of learning as we go, to redeem ourselves when we have messed up. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Emma’s a case in point. No spoiler alert needed here; you’ll have to read it for yourself. You can make your own notes between the lines.
Books mentioned in this column: