My interest in English history developed when I discovered the joys of 19th century English novelists like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. One can enjoy the books without understanding every single word or reference, but I guess I was born nerdy, because even in high school, it wasn't enough to read the story. I wanted to know what unfamiliar words meant. In Pride & Prejudice, for instance, when Sir William Lucas asked Mr. Darcy whether he often dances "at St. James's," I wanted to know what and where St. James's was.
Imagine my excitement in discovering annotated editions, which not only defined the puzzling words (I did not have my OED then) but enlightened me about historical context and explained subtleties I would otherwise completely miss.
So, naturally, I did a mental swoon when I spotted, at the recent New England Independent Booksellers Conference, a brand new annotated edition of Pride & Prejudice (edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks) from Harvard University Press. Never mind that I already have three editions of P&P on my shelves. One can never have enough. And this one's a beauty.
One of the tiresome aspects of most editions with notes is having to turn to the back of the book to get the information. This large, hardcover volume easily fits full size text on either side of the spine, with the notes in wide right and left hand columns.
Here's a sampling of what I learned on one page in Vol II, Chapter 5:
When Mr. Collins "punctually repeated all his wife's offers of refreshment," punctually in this case meant "In a manner attentive to details; scrupulously; punctiliously."
But the book offers more than a dictionary of Jane Austen's language (though the importance of language and characters' linguistic choices is beautifully explored). We find as well information about Austen's possible sources and inspirations—e.g., for the style of Darcy's proposal.
Merely skimming led to some eye openers. I knew, for instance, that Miss Darcy's fortune of £30,000 was enormous. But somehow I'd failed to catch on that "An elopement, which would mean marriage without the legal settlements that would protect a woman's money, would give Wickham complete possession of his bride's fortune and leave her penniless and completely dependent on him." There's more in this line, about money and what various possessions and lifestyles tell us about income levels.
There's a great deal more, in fact, than I can possibly convey in a blog. But you'll find a good summary as well as real reviews at the Harvard University Press site.
Since this book is one of the Independent Booksellers Holiday Catalog titles, you'll have no trouble finding it at your local bookseller.
And here, in accord with some FTC rule or other (which probably doesn’t apply to us, since we're not reviewers, but never mind), I need to tell you that, unlike the majority of books referred to in this blog, which Susan and I buy with our own hard-earned cash, this fabulous tome came gratis.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.