Says Emma, mock-pompously, showing off to Harriet Smith:

       The course of true love never did run smooth

 A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage.

Thus does Austen, through Emma, laugh gently at scholarly annotation. How she would have laughed to think that her own work, within two hundred years, would require it!

This year brings not one, but two new annotated editions of Jane Austen’s Emma, first published in 1815. Both come as part of a series of annotated versions of Austen novels. There is clearly a demand for annotated editions. Jane Austen’s works continue to grow in popularity, including among young women. Many people have seen the film and television versions, and have then turned to the novels. And although Austen’s prose is among the clearest and purest ever written in English, such readers must find a great deal which is puzzling.

This fact was brought home to me as I conducted a brief internet search relating to the works under review. Bloggers and their readers have greeted the annotated versions with relief, often expressed in misspelt and ungrammatical comments that reveal the extent of the problem that the annotators are attempting to address. This is the profound ignorance of language, literature, history, and religion, of even those readers who have the intelligence and taste to enjoy Austen. In previous generations, readers of Austen might first have been broadly familiar with the Bible, or with Dickens: now, they are very likely to be familiar with no books at all.

At the outset, I should make clear that I personally do not enjoy the heavy hand of the annotated version. Even the best judged comments, if offered at the rate of several per page, interrupt the reading flow; and it is the rare editor who offers both quality and sparsity. The very act of annotating must tempt the editor into believing that he or she has something worthwhile to say about every Austen paragraph. And this is not the case, to put it mildly.

The first of the two editions under review is published by Anchor Books and is edited by David M. Shapard.1 He is, as the blurb announces, “the author” of The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, The Annotated Persuasion, and The Annotated Sense and Sensibility. Dr. Shapard’s notes are voluminous; the book runs to 928 pages. This makes the work, as a chunky paperback, unwieldy. Also included are many black-and-white illustrations. Most of these are curiously undistinguished, making the reader wonder why they have been selected. Several are from secondary-source books, dating well after the Regency, and contain depictions such as the late Victorians’ ideas of what an eighteenth-century farm scene looked like. The value of these in illuminating aspects of Jane Austen’s work is questionable.

It needs to be said that Dr. Shapard’s commentary could have been much worse than it is. It is simply unrelentingly pedestrian. He is apparently unaware, for example, that the quote with which I opened has anything to say about his whole enterprise. Many less significant sections, however, are treated to extensive discussion.

For instance, Dr. Shapard feels it necessary to explain the function of sheep, in the context of Robert Martin’s bringing his shepherd’s son to sing to Harriet at Abbey Mill Farm.

The shepherd would work under Mr. Martin, tending the latter’s flock of sheep. Sheep have long been a leading farm animal in England, well suited to the cool climate and prized for their wool and their meat.

Now while I realize that sheep are less commonly raised in America than in England and Australia, surely most readers would be well aware of their existence and uses.

By contrast, several usages which might well call for comment fail to receive it. On rereading Emma, I was struck by Austen’s effective use of colloquialisms: “The lady [the soon-to-be Mrs. Elton] had been so easily impressed—so sweetly disposed—had in short, to use a most intelligible phrase, been so very ready to have him, that vanity and prudence were equally contented.” And, “That was the wind-up of the history; that was the glory of Miss Hawkins.”

These expressions (“ready to have him” and “wind-up”) are used in a manner reminiscent of Henry James. But Dr. Shapard sees nothing to note here.

He also appears to lack a sense of irony, surely a prerequisite for a commentator on Austen. Mr. Knightley remarks to Emma,

“Your time has been properly and delicately spent, if you have been endeavoring for the last four years to bring about this marriage [of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston]. A worthy employment for a young lady’s mind!”

Missing altogether Mr. Knightley’s ironic and moral point, Dr. Shapard proceeds to expatiate on the actual content of young ladies’ education at the time. It is as if he has been waiting for his chance to talk about the topic, and will proceed even out of season. Similarly, there is no sign that he has registered the humor of Emma’s reflections on the slow progress of what she imagines is the romance between Mr. Elton and Harriet: “She hardly wished to have more leisure for them. There are people, who the more you do for them, the less they will do for themselves.”

More significant is Dr. Shapard’s habit of finding a problem where none actually exists. In her brilliant miniature portrait of Mr. Weston and his history, Jane Austen tells us that, as a young man, he “joined the militia of his county, then embodied [mobilized].” Calculating back from the age of Mr. Weston’s son, Frank, Dr. Shapard triumphantly tells us that “In selecting this career for Mr. Weston Jane Austen has probably made a mistake, rare for her, in chronology.” Dr. Shapard’s reasoning appears to be based on the notion that local militias were only embodied upon the commencement of hostilities with France in 1792, while Mr. Weston would have joined in about 1789.

Knowing that Jane Austen never gets this kind of detail wrong, I carried out a very quick search on the Internet. Various militias, it turns out, were embodied at various times throughout the later eighteenth century (including in the context of the American Revolutionary War). Without being specific, she was, of course, right. If I can check such a matter very quickly, I wonder why Dr. Shapard did not, or why he was so apparently determined to find an error.

Finally, many readers may find irritating the notes which commence with the warning “PLOT SPOILER.” These mainly relate to the clandestine relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, which is only explained later in the book. Dr. Shapard feels the need to spell out what was going on, well before Austen does. I can only think that many first-time readers will be disappointed by having key mysteries revealed so early.

This raises the question of the purpose of many such notes. Is the aim to provide a comprehensive analysis, as well as verbal commentary? If so, there is much more that could be said than Dr. Shapard does. On the other hand, such an analysis would be better suited to a separate article, or book, than to notes opposite each page.

The other version under review is edited by Bharat Tandon, and published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.2 It is a much larger, more lavish book, with a much more judicious, indeed excellent, selection of illustrations.

Dr. Tandon is a far better scholar and editor than Dr. Shapard. He is more restrained, for a start, confining himself to about one note per page on average. His notes also include references useful for further reading on particular issues. Dr. Tandon gives a more correct note on the point of the militia, noting that “After being substantially modernized by the Militia Act of 1757, the militias were frequently ‘embodied’ (mobilized) at times of national crisis, in particular when an invasion was feared,” giving a detailed reference to a work specifically on the subject.

The only real criticism I can make of this version is its tendency to be pretentious. In commenting on Mr. Elton’s marriage, Austen tells us that “He had caught both substance and shadow—both fortune and affection.” Dr. Tandon seizes on this:

The contrast between “substance” and “shadow” may originally have more philosophically rigorous sources in English neo-Platonic thought, since Plato’s theory of Forms posits the perceptible world as the “shadow” version of the true world of ideal forms . . .

. . . and so on, for another half-column, including the “Cave” image in the Republic, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 53, and Act III Scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice. Now no one enjoys spotting Platonic themes in later literature more than I do. But here I think it far more likely that Austen was referring solely to the Merchant quote, which, as it appears in the context of Bassanio’s choice of a casket, is directly relevant to Mr. Elton’s choice of a bride.

Similarly, when Frank Churchill mistakenly mentions a piece of local news in general company (about Mr. Perry considering acquiring a carriage), which it later turns out he had only learned in a secret letter from Jane Fairfax, he turns the matter off by saying “it must have been a dream.” Upon this very flimsy pretext, Dr. Tandon launches into a long quotation from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan on the subject of dreaming, followed by the famous account of how Coleridge conceived “Kubla Khan,” and an irrelevant reference to Adam’s dream in a letter by Keats. Such a display is uncalled for by the text.

No editor these days can be brief when it comes to the issue of Bristol merchants and the slave trade (hinted at in the background of Mrs. Elton née Hawkins), and both Drs. Shapard and Tandon take up a great deal of space here. For what it is worth, we can conjecture that Austen herself was pro-abolition. Shapard aptly quotes a letter in which she expressed great affection towards Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist: “I am as much in love with the Author as I ever was with Clarkson or Buchanan” (January 24, 1813).

So why does she have the awful Mrs. Elton defend her, no doubt, equally horrible brother-in-law Mr. Suckling as “always rather a friend to the abolition”? Neither editor can help us here, but perhaps it is simply that “rather a friend” is a lukewarm endorsement from those such as the Eltons and Sucklings, whose interest in being fashionable coincides, in this instance, with their being right.

Another social issue with much greater importance for the plot of Emma has, by contrast, received little attention. We learn on the very first page of the work that Emma’s dearest friend, her soulmate until now, was her governess, Miss Taylor. (In a parallel which should have—but has not—drawn her and Emma together, Jane Fairfax has also lost her closest friend, Miss Campbell, to a recent marriage.) Emma is so conscious of the importance of preserving social divisions that she announces that she could never have visited Harriet had she become Mrs. Martin; yet she, and everyone in her circle, has been accustomed to view Miss Taylor as an intimate friend, and in the case of Mr. Weston, as a marriage partner.

That this should strike us is reinforced later both by the general consternation about Jane Fairfax having to become a governess, and by the patronizing remarks of Mrs. Elton:

“And she [Mrs. Weston] appears so truly good—there is something so motherly and kind-hearted about her, that it wins upon one directly. She was your governess, I think? . . . Having understood as much, I was rather astonished to find her so very lady-like! But she is really quite the gentlewoman.”

In this context, I looked in vain for one or other editor to note the fact of Austen’s own friendship with Anne Sharp. Miss Sharp was a governess in the family of Austen’s brother Edward Knight, at his estate of Godmersham in Kent, and she became a close friend of the author. They remained friends after Miss Sharp left Godmersham in 1806, with Jane writing to her as “My dearest Anne.” Anne is, of course, the Christian name that Jane Austen gives to Miss Taylor in the novel. Claire Tomalin, an Austen biographer, tells us that the writer expressed in a letter the hope that one of Miss Sharp’s employers, “Sir Wm P. of Yorkshire,” would marry Sharp: “I do so want him to marry her! . . . Oh! Sir Wm—Sir Wm—how I will love you, if you will love Miss Sharp!” (Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, June 23, 1814).

As this letter dates from 1814, presumably as Emma was being written, it would seem that Austen was creating the happy ending for Miss Taylor—marriage with Mr. Weston—that was denied to her friend.

That this connection should have escaped Drs. Shapard and Tandon should not perhaps surprise us when it appears to have escaped, as well, Ms. Tomalin. She observes that “it would take a later novelist [Charlotte Brontë] to marry a working governess to her employer,” implying that Austen was too much of her time to conceive a cross-class marriage. To be sure, Mr. Weston is not depicted as Miss Taylor’s employer, but he is shown as belonging to the same social circle as the Woodhouses. Here, as elsewhere (particularly in Mansfield Park and Persuasion), Austen turns out to have been on the side of merit over class, as thoroughly and consciously as any writer of the 1840s.

So how would she have greeted these two new editions of her work? I am afraid she would have smiled at Dr. Tandon’s elegant effusions, and sighed over Dr. Shapard’s laborious remarks. Of the two, however, Dr. Shapard is actually the more useful for those readers who really do require a great deal of assistance in understanding Austen’s text. And if either edition brings more readers the great and enduring pleasure of entering the little world of Highbury, it will be well worth any shortcomings.

1 The Annotated Emma, by Jane Austen, edited by David M. Shapard; Anchor, 928 pages, $17.95.

2 Emma: An Annotated Edition, by Jane Austen, edited by Bharat Tandon; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 576 pages, $35.00.