In September, Harvard University Press published an edition of Jane Austen’s Emma with annotations by Bharat Tandon, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia in the UK. The tome is the size of two bricks put together and about as heavy. So it’s not the sort of book you can lounge with. But its heft is unlikely to deter scholars of nineteenth century British literature and the most devoted fans of Jane Austen. They will be thrilled at the HUP edition, which illuminates the text by way of meticulous annotations and some lovely illustrations.
Tandon’s motive for annotating a book like Emma, which has been studied and discussed to exhaustion, is twofold. While the story is clear to modern readers, they might miss details of historical events, objects and habits that are dated. Pointing these out would give the reader a deeper understanding of the text. And in doing so, Tandon hopes to defend the charge critics have made that Austen fails to connect her novel to the history of the time, that it makes too few references to the events that were moving England and the world in the early nineteenth century, the period in which Emma is set.
It is astonishing how much escapes the casual reader. Most readers would be ignorant of objects that were current at the time and have since passed out of fashion. For instance, we are told and shown that a spencer is a short, fitted jacket that women wore when they stepped out of the house. A men’s beaver refers to hats made of beaver fur that, as an illustration shows, came in many forms. The footnotes pertaining to everyday practices really make the text come alive. If you have ever wondered what a backgammon table looks like, since novels of the time always have characters playing the game, there’s a useful picture. The card game quadrille became unfashionable by the end of the seventeenth century and was replaced by whist. Among these, the explanations about the food and dietary habits of Austen’s England are particularly enjoyable. Dinner back then, we learn, was the second major meal after breakfast. So it was had between four and six thirty in the evening. When the talkative Miss Bates bumps into Emma and Harriet at the cloth store, she immediately launches into a breathless monologue that covers, among other things, baked apples and apple dumplings. Tandon provides recipes alongside by Hannah Glasse, an eighteenth century cookbook writer and a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra in which she mentions having served apple dumplings to some guests.
What is equally interesting are the sociological stories that objects tell, objects the modern reader would never know had deeper significance. Cheese for example was no mere dairy product; it was charged with meaning. During a stroll, Emma and Harriet come across Mr Elton, the annoying Vicar—and twin of Pride and Prejudice’s equally annoying Mr Collins—who Emma is attempting to set Harriet up with. Elton tells Harriet all about a party he attended at the home of his friend Mr Cole, where guests were served Stilton and north Wiltshire cheese. Only Austen’s contemporaries and historians would know that these cheeses were indicators of class. Stilton and north Wiltshire, which were once more or less locally consumed, became popular throughout England in the late eighteenth century owing to an improved transportation system. Serving them had a certain cachet as they were in a sense imported. This marks Cole as someone wealthy enough to afford items that are manufactured miles away. Or the Alderney cow, a dairy cow native to the Channel Islands that was prized for its looks—it was a pretty breed that ceased to exist as a pure breed after World War II—as well as its high quality of milk. In her description of her acquaintances the Martins of Abbey-Mill Farm, Harriet says that two of their eights cows were Alderneys, which suggests that they were at a respectable position in the social hierarchy of the time.
To counter the criticism that Austen is too inward looking an author, Tandon offers the example of Miss Hawkins, Elton’s future wife who Emma dislikes for her poor social skills. Emma somewhat snidely describes Hawkins as ‘the youngest of two daughters of a Bristol-merchant, of course, he must be called; but, as the whole of the profits of his mercantile life appeared so very moderate, it was not unfair to guess the dignity of his line of trade had been very moderate also.’ The allusion is that Hawkins’s father could have been engaged in the slave trade as Bristol was notorious for being a major slave port.
In another example, Austen refers, in a portion where Emma and company are planning a party, to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Vindications of the Rights of Woman (1792). ‘A private dance, without sitting down to supper, was pronounced an infamous fraud upon the rights of men and women…,’ Austen writes. So it is clear that she is well aware of current affairs. Tandon argues that Austen did not need to explicitly tie the events of her novels to real, historical events because ‘it was something her readers were living through as a sober, unavoidable fact of daily existence.’
The scarcity of historical references in Austen’s novels might have bothered reviewers of the time but it hardly matters now. It is widely agreed that Austen’s talent lies in the details. Her extraordinarily descriptive works are the literary equivalent of miniature paintings, mining the everyday and the commonplace in order to comment upon and reveal the social reality of nineteenth century England. The annotations are particularly helpful when it comes to Emma. The book actually becomes more engaging upon reading Tandon’s explanations as on its own it’s not as compelling as Austen’s other works like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Of course being a fanboy, Tandon would disagree. (He is also smitten by Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film Clueless, which he calls ‘the best Emma adaptation to date’. Alicia Silverstone, who was at the height of her fame in the mid-1990s having famously acted in the Aerosmith music videos ‘Amazing’ and ‘Crazy’, plays the lead in this American high school version of Austen’s novel.) So the best way to read Emma is to first get hold of a light paperback version that you can read comfortably and without feeling as if you have got an anchor in your hands, and then proceed to Tandon’s enormous and enormously detailed annotated version.
Pronoti Datta is Senior News Editor at Mumbaiboss.com.