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A Wealth of Details

Pronoti Datta

By Jane Austen Edited by Bharat Tandon
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA and London, 2012, pp. 560, $ 35.00


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 ...

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