Too Good and Too Silly

Frank Kermode

  • The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Vol. IX: Later Manuscripts edited by Janet Todd and Linda Bree
    Cambridge, 742 pp, £65.00, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 84348 5
  • Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman
    Canongate, 342 pp, £20.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 84767 294 0

The Cambridge Edition of Jane Austen is a production on the most monumental scale, involving nine beautiful but heavy volumes and something like a dozen editors, with a powerful editorial board and a team of learned commentators. One volume apiece goes to the major novels – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which originally appeared in a single posthumous volume, are here divided. Later Manuscripts, the last to appear and the largest volume of all, is the work of the general editor, Janet Todd, and of Linda Bree of the Cambridge University Press, which long ago set a standard for editing novelists with its multi-volumed D.H. Lawrence. The extent and minuteness of the labours of Todd and Bree, both in this volume and throughout the series, are almost painful to contemplate.

It used to be taken as obvious that the aim of an editor was to represent as far as possible the final wishes of the author, but the fashion now requires the recording of ‘multiple intentions of equal interest’: authorial changes of mind, variants that have ‘something to tell’, the production of a text that is a ‘process rather than a fixed entity’. Follow that doctrine long enough and you arrive at hypertext, and information of interest only to other editors, who have to take the trouble of reading it. But it has to be said that one can’t imagine that readers who lack interest in the scholarly minutiae will choose to read the novels in this form.

The Todd-Bree volume on the later manuscripts runs to about 800 pages, of which only some 200 are by Jane Austen. The most important manuscript fragment is of the unfinished novel Sanditon. Another substantial fragment is the early Lady Susan, and a third is The Watsons, also abandoned in manuscript. In addition to line-by-line transcriptions which add to the bulk of the book and may not be much consulted, except by future editors (if one can imagine the need for them), there are some prayers of unsettled authorship, a dramatisation of part of Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison, admittedly of little interest in itself, and some poems of which the same might be said. The 100-page introduction is lovingly minute in its coverage of early commentary, and the annotations are careful and useful.

The performances of the other editors, so far as I’ve been able to scan them, are of the same calibre and design as Bree and Todd’s. The inclusion in the edition of a volume called Jane Austen in Context (2005), dedicated to modern commentary, is a departure from current practice; it gives the reader the benefit of information supplementary to what is offered in the individual editions, and its presence makes this a sort of editio cum notis variorum – not at all a bad thing, indeed a generous one.

A good specimen of the kind of commentary on offer here is the contribution by Edward Copeland on money. Others write about domestic architecture, careers in the army, the navy, the law; manners, medicine, rank, religion, transport and so on. But let us consider money. Money was a subject of importance to gentlemen of the rank of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, who had £10,000 a year, but it was of no less importance to his servants, who probably got by on £16 – a disparity sanctified by conveniently unexamined assumptions concerning rank. ‘Everything in the Austen novels seems to add up at the cash register in the usual way,’ Copeland says. ‘The pianos, shawls, muslins, carriages and horses [are] so familiar that we think we are in the same world.’ He immediately goes on to say that we are not. But he gives an account of ‘the Austen fictional economy’ which suggests that in the brief time between his writing and our reading this essay the world has been so rearranged that we can happily come closer to Austen’s as he describes it: a world of foreign wars, scarce capital, inadequate banking and credit systems, poverty and taxes – on windows, on hair powder and on everything else Pitt could think of.

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