The Historical Context of 'Pride and Prejudice' David Shapard, editor of The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, talks about the footnotes that appear in the novel that explain the novel's historical context and include literary comments and clarifications.
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The Historical Context of 'Pride and Prejudice'

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The Historical Context of 'Pride and Prejudice'

The Historical Context of 'Pride and Prejudice'

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Jane Austen fans are a curious bunch. Their passions are not nearly as restrained as those of her characters. In fact, they've got less in common with demure Dickens fans than they might with say devotee of the Buffyverse.

The Austen craze is nothing new, but there is fresh meat on the tea tables of regency drawing rooms around the world. A new annotated edition of "Pride and Prejudice." If, for example, you've forgotten the Pemberley is the name of Fitzwilliam Darcy's estate, never fear.

The notes that accompany Austen's immortal prose will give you the very dimensions of that property, the meaning of now obscure terminology, and the 18th century definitions of words whose meanings have changed. All of this part of a bit of an annotation craze in publishing.

If you're a Jane-ite, if you have questions about "Pride and Prejudice," about this annotation or about annotations in general, give us a call - 800-989-8255. Or you can send us e-mail: Or join the conversation on our blog at

David Shapard, the editor of "The Annotated Pride and Prejudice," joins us now from the studios of member station WAMC in Albany, New York.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID SHAPARD (Editor, "The Annotated Pride and Prejudice"): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And how did you decide to annotate P&P. many of the notes seem like you were first a fan.

Mr. SHAPARD: Oh, I was. I'd long been a fan of Jane Austen. She'd long been my favorite novelist and at a certain point I was thinking of writing something and casting around for ideas. And suddenly this came upon me. I actually was thinking of doing some of my own novel writing and decided, well, as preparation I might reread Jane Austen once again and read about her.

And then suddenly the idea, why don't I do something on Jane Austen. And I'd actually seen other annotated versions, the things you mentioned, and that was one model and since I knew there was no version like that for "Pride and Prejudice" and it was such a great novel and so widely popular I thought this was an excellent opportunity.

CONAN: And I think everybody accepts that it's hard to even understand Shakespeare without some footnotes here and there. But Jane Austen, not all that long ago.

Mr. SHAPARD: Yes. I suppose it's not as difficult as Shakespeare to understand, including the language. It's not as alien, but there still is a lot that is different. I mean, I certainly think people can read it and still enjoy it as they have done for the last couple of hundred years without having additional notes. But I think it helps a lot of have notes to explain the language and historical background and things like that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. For example, you point out the differences between a phaeton, a gig, a chaise, and a curricle. These are all modes of transportation and I guess these are really important.

Mr. SHAPARD: Yes. I mean, they often - they indicate things about people's social status, because some are more expensive. They also can be used in different functions. Some are open ones. Some are closed. And so, you know, when you see that that could indicate something about the characters or it could indicate something about the action that's happening if you see that they're using this particular kind of vehicle rather than another one.

CONAN: And the fact is Jane Austen - these details were very important to her.

Mr. SHAPARD: Yes. I mean, that is something that is significant about her work is that she really makes an effort to get these details right. I mean, the -what we have - the best thing we have that shows her own attitudes toward novel writing are a series of letters she wrote to a niece. A niece who was attempting her own novel.

And most of the letters involve her criticisms of points about, you know, this character wouldn't act in such a way, given their social position; or these places are too far apart, to have been traveled in short time. And she was very concerned to get these details right. I also found that myself in looking at a lot of - reading a lot of history books from the time, researching various topics, I found time and time again how incredibly accurate she was in describing these historical phenomenon.

CONAN: And I guess it is important when words have really changed some of their meaning. For example, vicious is not the word that we associate - now how we would define it.

Mr. SHAPARD: Yeah, then it was just basically - it was sort of the opposite or complimentary term to virtuous. You know, virtuous is someone who has a - full of virtue - vicious, someone who's full of vice. It didn't have quite some of the more nasty connotations it necessarily has now.

And there are other words. I mean, one I think that's one of the most striking ones is the term candid, which now tends to be kind of frank and outspoken. Then it meant someone who tended to think well of others and always look on the bright side, which is a very different meaning than nowadays.

CONAN: Yeah, and fun is a word that is, at least as used as some of her characters, is a word that's really changed its meaning. It's slang.

Mr. SHAPARD: That's right. Or actually, in that case, the meaning isn't that totally different. But at that point, it's slang, and, of course - or it was just starting to become really recognized English, and this is a common process.

Words started out as slang eventually become standard English. But it was still kind of a slang term only used by people who were often less educated. So the fact that it's the favorite word of a particular character - Lydia Bennett, the younger sister of the heroine, who's very foolish and silly - is itself an important indicator of her character.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in this conversation. If you're a Jane-ite, if you have read this annotated edition or if you have questions about annotations in general, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: We're speaking with David Shapard, who's the editor of "The Annotated Pride and Prejudice."

Let's start with Amy, and Amy's with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

AMY (Caller): Hi.


AMY: I'm Jane-ite. I'm a life-long Jane-ite. My mother read us Jane Austin when we were too young to know what most of the words meant. But I attended the annual grand meeting last year in Tucson, last fall, where John Wilkeshire(ph), he just did an annotated version of "Mansfield Park" - which unfortunately I don't have because it's very expensive - but he did a very interesting - he had a very interesting idea in his speech about whether annotation, you know, whether it adds to it or whether it takes away from the joy of the story.

Now I'm not sure if that's exactly what he meant, but that's what I took away from it, and I'm not sure where I fall in that debate. I think there's some question of should you just read it for the story, or is it really necessary to know that much more about it?

CONAN: Well, I assume that there are editions available without any notes or annotations, so I guess you do have that choice when you go out and buy it, but David Shapard, this must have occurred to you, as well.

Mr. SHAPARD: Well, I think that it a problem, or at least it's something that -how some people could feel. And obviously, you know, there is no need for people who would prefer just to concentrate on the story to use the annotations. But I think it also can help fill in background, and I mean, I know myself that even though I had read this novel many times and read other Jane Austin and knew a lot about the period, just the process of researching taught me a lot of additional things about the novel because there are many subtle things that you might not have picked up.

AMY: There's a lot of jokes that you don't get if you don't know certain things.

Mr. SHAPARD: That's right. And I mean, I learned a lot, and so - of course, at the same time, you can always just read it for the story, and I think that's fine, and - but I think this can be a supplement for those who also want additional information or those who are unfamiliar, who have never read the novel and perhaps have been deterred by thinking that well, it's going to be too hard to get through. I'm not sure how I'm going to understand it. Something like this can be excellent for helping guide people and making it more accessible for people who haven't read her before.

CONAN: Amy, thanks very much for the call.

AMY: Thank you, and I'd like to give a shout out for Jasmine(ph), north coast, Ohio. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMY: Goodbye.

CONAN: Okay, there you go. Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get Linda on the line, Linda with us from - I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly - from Chehalis in Washington.

LINDA: Chehalis.

CONAN: Chehalis. Go ahead, please.

LINDA: In the book, she talks about how much Bingley and Darcy - or her mom especially talks about how much Bingley and Darcy are worth, and I think Bingley was worth 5,000 a year, and Darcy was like 10,000 a year. So in dollars today, how much would that be?

Mr. SHAPARD: Well, that's a good question. I actually have that in the book, where I say in the case of Bingley, he's described as 4 to 5,000 a year. It'd be between about $250,000 to $300,000 annual income. Darcy would be double that, or a little more than double - 10,000 a year. And in his case, he also has an estate, which would be on top of his income.

So you do get - I do provide those equivalents, though at the same time, they're not precise equivalents because, you know, it's not the exact same sort of economy, so certain things like goods tended to be more expensive then, but labor was very cheap. So a lot of these people had armies of servants in a way that people nowadays, even wealthy people, wouldn't have, but they often weren't able to buy as many things.

But yes, there is - it's good to know that, because you wonder all right, what does that mean - £5,000 or £10,000? What does that mean in terms of today's money?

CONAN: Yeah, 4,000 or 5,000 a year…

Mr. SHAPARD: It does give you a sense. I mean, these are very wealthy people, especially Darcy. He would be one of the - you know, in the top probably .1 percent of the income of people in England at the time.

LINDA: Well, and plus because he would inherit his aunt's estate, too, because of it being patrilineal, you know, estate would go from - not from mother to her daughter, but wouldn't it go from her to him if something were to happen to his aunt's daughter?

Mr. SHAPARD: That is possible. I don't know about that. It's never spelled out. Sometimes it could, though it all depends on how - if there was another male relative who might be able to step in, but it is true that the nature of inheritance at the time generally favored men. And that's a critical fact, especially when it comes to the other major figure in the novel, Elizabeth, the one who ends up marrying Darcy.

She's in a situation where her father has a very comfortable income, 2,000 a year. And so she lives very well, but the nature of the inheritance system, something called an entail that I explain in the book, means that if - because he hasn't had any male children, once he dies, all his income and the estate he has are all going to pass to somebody else, which means that his wife and his daughters are going to be left with almost nothing.

So she's in this paradoxical situation of being someone who lives very comfortably right now, but is facing the possibility of terrible poverty, which in turn is something that really adds to the story because it shows her desperate situation and why it's so good for her to make a marriage with somebody like Mr. Darcy, and at the same time also shows how courageous she is in refusing an offer the first time she's asked because she doesn't admire him.

CONAN: Linda…

LINDA: But isn't Austin, though…

CONAN: Linda, I wanted to give some other people a chance on the line.

LINDA: Sorry.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Thanks very much. We appreciate your enthusiasm, though.

LINDA: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with David Shapard, who's the editor of "The Annotated Pride and Prejudice." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Emmett - Emmett in Portland, Oregon.

EMMETT (Caller): Hi.


EMMETT: I just wanted to say that I think the annotation is a great idea. It allows you to both on one side read the entire story without annotation if you so choose, and on the other side view the fluidity of how language evolved, in taking all in granted(ph) from Shakespearean times to when Jane Austin wrote to current, contemporary times. And I'll just comment to somebody who was on the line earlier, I think anybody who told you that more knowledge was unnecessary is a person is a person you shouldn't trust, and I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Emmett. The language certainly evolves a great deal from Shakespeare's time to Austin's, and considerably from Austin's time to ours.

Mr. SHAPARD: That's right, and, of course, in some respects, it can be almost more deceptive with Austin because Shakespeare's language is so obviously alien that you kind of except that I'm going to have to figure out exactly what things mean.

But Jane Austin's language, it's closer to ours, but sometimes that can lead you think oh, well therefore, there are almost no differences. And so a lot of words that are still used nowadays, you sort of just assume, well, that has the same meaning even though, in fact, the meaning may have shifted some.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Caroline in El Cerrito, California. Hi. When it comes to words that have changed their meaning, my favorite is from "Mansfield Park," when we read that Fanny got knocked up in the shrubbery. My, how words do change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAPARD: I didn't remember that one. That is good, yes. I can assure you, it does not mean what knocked up means nowadays.

CONAN: Let's go to Tobias in Flagstaff, Arizona.

TOBIAS (Caller): Yes, hi, good afternoon. I'd just like to reiterate what Emmett said, that the value of annotations, I think, is enormous. Reading a few years ago the annotated version of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and found the additional information regarding historical people of the time, some of the references to where the (unintelligible) was on scientific knowledge, many, many other factors to be absolutely invaluable.

CONAN: I guess that one has to be…

TOBIAS: I really love seeing the analysis coming out more and more in various versions.

CONAN: I guess that one has to begin with the definition of a league. How deep is 20,000 leagues?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOBIAS: Well, actually, it refers to the distance covered under the ocean, not the depth, per se. A league, I believe, is on the order of something like six kilometers.

CONAN: And we get into all of this - in all kinds of measurements, David Shapard, you know, from furlongs to fortnights.

TOBIAS: Indeed, absolutely.

CONAN: Tobias, thanks…

Mr. SHAPARD: Yeah, that's right.

TOBIAS: I'll take any other comments offline, but thank you very much for producing this work. I think it's a great idea, and I hope to see many more such things coming out in the future.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

Mr. SHAPARD: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Tyler in Des Moines. How do you decide how many annotations to put in? More specifically, how do you create a non-overwhelming balance of annotations to story?

Mr. SHAPARD: Well, that's a tough one. In fact, much of the work in this wasn't just about researching and deciding what things could be said, but then deciding how they're going to be organized and figuring out how much to put in. I guess it's all, you know, I guess every work can use a little bit of a blue pencil to scratch things off, and that's always painful to do so, but you know, you can't put everything in there. And you just have to kind of play it by ear in terms of deciding, and inevitably, you know, there're going to be some things that some people may already know, but you try to put just what you think is most appropriate and what serves the story.

And one thing I did in this is to try to make sure the annotations all do serve the story. Most of them are not very long, and they almost always refer very directly to what's being said in the novel. They're not meant to sort of stand alone or show of my knowledge. They're meant to help people with the novel, and that was always my guiding principle in deciding what to put in and what not to put in.

CONAN: And you also realized the value when terminology changes so swiftly. I mean, you practically need an annotated version of "Bright Lights, Big City" at this point, so…

Mr. SHAPARD: That's true. It could be, could be.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. SHAPARD: Well, thank you. I appreciate it.

CONAN: David Shapard is the editor of "The Annotated Pride and Prejudice." He joined us today from the studios of our member station in Albany, New York, WAMC. This is TALK OF THE NATION, and you're listening to us from National Public Radio News.

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