This post is being revised to include Dr. Shapard’s responses to my readers’ questions. Thank you to my readers for your great questions and please keep checking the bottom of this post for Dr. Shapard’s replies to your questions.
Few people knew Jane Austen’s identity as a writer during her lifetime, and as we come upon the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death, there are few people today who know her work as intimately as David M. Shapard. Earlier this year, Dr. Shapard finished his annotated version of Mansfield Park, which completes his work on publishing all six annotated editions of Jane Austen’s novels.
Dr. Shapard’s annotated texts are quite popular with readers who long to read and/or reread Austen while deepening their knowledge about her novels, along with the world of Regency England that her infamous characters inhabited over two centuries ago. It is no small feat to bring to the surface the various details and intricacies about Jane’s world, which help contemporary readers understand the culture of the time that she lived within. So long ago and yet, in some ways, not too different from our modern-day world of shifting values, evolving technologies, and ever-changing economies, Jane’s own world was very similar to the world that Mrs. Bennet proudly boasts of her own membership within; those four and twenty families living together in a rural community to provide one another with companionship, support, and yes, plenty of sport, which provided an observant eye like Jane’s with plenty of material for her beloved stories.
Dr. Shapard’s work has allowed thousands of readers to savor Jane’s stories in new and meaningful ways. When he recently stopped by a JASNA conference that I was attending in Saratoga Springs, NY, I had the fortunate luck of meeting him and before long, we had spent well over an hour discussing Jane and his work around her novels. I was absolutely starstruck to meet the man behind these annotated texts and our conversation was everything I could have imagined it would be; perceptive, knowledgeable, and for me, quite inspiring. Dr. Shapard knows Austen’s work in ways that made me quite envious and even though I am not even close to being an Austen scholar, I certainly appreciated his ability to challenge some of my ideas about her stories and his overarching understanding of Jane as both a novelist and as a woman.
Dr. Shapard is an active member of his own JASNA group, the JASNA Capital Region, and he has participated in numerous other opportunities to share and extend his knowledge of Jane Austen. During our conversation, he shared that he would enjoy visiting with my readers at Just Jane 1813, and before very long, a plan was hatched.
Today, I am here to share my conversation with him and he’s graciously offered to let my readers have their share in the conversation by keeping this conversation going on in this post for the next 10 days. Throughout this time, he will check back regularly to read your comments and respond to them, while also answering any questions you may have for him too.
Please join me in welcoming David M. Shapard to Just Jane 1813.
David, I can’t express how grateful I am to have you here to visit with me and my readers. You are one of the few people I have interviewed on my blog that I have also had the pleasure of meeting, and I am just thrilled to make your acquaintance again.
I know this is a question you’ve answered many times, but can you share with my readers how you came to annotate Austen’s stories and what that process has been like for you. I know my readers would love to hear the details behind this work and see any photos that you can share about this process too.
It was a circuitous process. My first experience with Austen was during college when over the summer I read Pride and Prejudice, mostly from having heard it was so well-regarded. I enjoyed it, but was not wild about it and was not inspired to read more Austen. Years later, however, when in graduate school I read a number of authors who cited her for her profound understanding and ideas and decided to try again. This time I was entranced, and soon was reading critical studies about her and seeing TV adaptations and rereading the novels. I remember while finishing my dissertation I would often take a break by reading Pride and Prejudice, constantly finding all sorts of new things I had missed previously and having to force myself with difficulty to stop so I could get back to writing the dissertation.
I continued to be an avid reader of Austen, and of books about her, and in 2001 I discovered an Austen website, The Republic of Pemberley, and began visiting it constantly. I particularly liked the way it encouraged, through its discussion, intensive examination of specific points, for I had long felt that much of Austen’s strength lay in her extraordinary command of detail and her subtlety. This, in turn, gave me the idea of one day doing a study that would examine her chapter by chapter to bring out some of these details, for standard books about her novels tended to focus more on the big picture than on point by point analysis. Fortuitously, it was only a few months afterwards that I learned I would not be able to continue with my current teaching position, which made me think that I would be better off trying to be a writer, an idea I had long harbored, than a professor. I began to cast around for ideas for a book, and one day the notion hit me of an annotated version of Pride and Prejudice (which I selected as her most popular novel). I had seen other annotated versions of classics, and liked them, and also knew there were none of Austen (except for some editions, like the Norton, that had a limited number of notes).
Having decided that, I quickly set to work and within a year had produced an initial draft. I then managed to get an agent, who unfortunately could not get a publisher to accept it. I had continued to work further on the book and felt that I had something of real value, so I decided to publish it myself. This version managed to achieve modest sales through the internet (while I also looked into further Austen projects). My big break came a couple years later when someone from Random House found my book and asked about their doing a paperback version (my edition was a hardcover). This led to the paperback’s appearance in early 2007. It did very well, and by the fall they had indicated interest in other annotated Austens and we had agreed to all the other ones. I soon set to work, and the others, including eventually a revised P&P, began appearing in 2010.
I know you’ve been immersed in the Austen community for a long time. What keeps you remaining as interested as you are in the world of Jane Austen? Do you find throughout your talks with other Janeites that there are many similar threads between people’s interest in Jane, and if so, what are these threads? Or do you believe people come to love and pursue Jane Austen for many different reasons?
Well, I continue to love Jane Austen’s writings, and so never tire of reading them, reading about them, and discussing them. It’s also great to be able to meet with other people who want to engage in discussions on what I’ve read. In contrast, after reading books on other subjects, I often have nobody who has recently read the same book, or others on the same subject. I also really like being able to share my own knowledge. While I value the freedom that comes with being a full-time writer, and would not want to change, I do miss at times the human interaction that came with teaching. Speaking before Austen lovers, and answering their questions, is an excellent opportunity to return to teaching briefly. Moreover, an Austen audience has the advantage that everyone is there from a desire to learn more about the subject, which means you never get the all-too-common scholastic question, “Is this going to be on the exam?”
As for people’s interest in Jane, I can’t say I’ve done a careful study of that. My impressions are that people come to her from a variety of reasons. Some seem to relish her humor especially, while others are particularly moved by the romance. Many delight in the cleverness and complexity of her language, even as others find it difficult and frustrating. I have been struck by how many are interested in her period, whether out of purely historical interest in learning about another society, or from a wish to recreate elements of the past like the clothing. Another thing I’ve often found is how many people will draw analogies between the characters and situations in Austen and those they have known in their own lives, which I guess would be an indication of appreciation for Austen’s brilliant insights into human psychology. Almost everyone appreciates how good she is, and there are some, of which I would include myself, who show a particular interest in her literary art and technique, and the structure of the novels. I suppose that the variety of reasons for appreciating Austen is another proof of her strength as a novelist, a sign of how many arrows are in her quiver.
Last year I started a blog series called “We Still Need Her,” and within this series, I posted every chapter from “Pride and Prejudice,” along with images, research articles, songs, and guest posts that explored the various themes and plots within her story. I found myself referring to your annotated version throughout this process.
The series title was taken from a quote by Rosamund Pike, who recently narrated a Pride & Prejudice audiobook, and it captures for me the essence of why we are still so intimately attached to Jane’s characters, especially her most popular heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet is this very “modern” woman during a time that was in many ways, very oppressive and quite frankly, at times, very depressing for women. Yet, Elizabeth offers a rather new way to understand what womanhood can look like for her readers and yet, today, 200 years later, we are still having this same conversation. What is it to be a woman in a man’s world and how do society’s expectations continue to shape who we are and what we eventually become?
Well, for obvious reasons, I’m not the best person to answer the question of what it is to be a woman in a man’s world. At the same time, this raises an issue that has long intrigued me. As you say, the society of Austen’s time and of her novels is one in which women were in a very unequal position and had limited freedom. Yet millions of women are strongly attracted to her novels. I have noticed that in other contexts, such as the popularity of romance novels set in earlier centuries. At my local library, I often pass by a display of romance novels on the way to the stacks, and see numerous covers featuring women in period dress. In contrast, I sense that male novel readers are more likely to read stories that are set in recent times or in the future.
All this has made me wonder about the appeal of Austen and other period novels. I can think of a number of hypotheses, including that women identify with the heroines of earlier times because they still feel they are living under similar constraints, that women like to see heroines struggling against the harsher constraints of earlier times, or even that women find some attractive features of earlier times amidst their bad elements. But I do not pretend to have an answer to this whole matter, and would actually be curious to hear others’ thoughts. David, I hope my readers share their insights here as well. I’d love to read their answers too!
I know back in April, we discussed the stratification of public opinion, at least in regards to the sales of Austen’s six novels, with Pride and Prejudice at the top of this list “in a league of its own.” In your opinion, why does Pride & Prejudice remain as popular as ever?
Yes, Pride and Prejudice was the most popular of Austen’s novels in her own time and has always been the most popular ever since. This is interesting because critics have been most likely to favor Emma or perhaps Mansfield Park (the latter is my favorite). I myself would identify several reasons why Pride and Prejudice has had the greatest appeal to readers. One is that Elizabeth Bennet is a truly charming and winning heroine; Austen herself called her “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.”
Another is that it is probably the funniest of her novels, especially in the characters of Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet. Many people have also pointed to the strong Cinderella character of the story, in which a young woman of relatively modest circumstances is able to win a haughty man of much superior position. Finally, as I discuss at some length in the introduction to my annotated edition, the story has a particular aptness that is ultimately very satisfying. You have two people who are obviously suited to each other in many respects, and obviously the most eligible woman and man on the scene, but who quickly antagonize each other and find themselves radically at odds (more than any other main romantic pair in Austen). They also are both at fault, which gives a nice symmetry to their estrangement. All this leads to a proposal scene that seems to leave no chance of their ever getting together. But then both begin to make amends, to realize their mistakes, and to take actions that eventually lead to their union, thereby taking the reader from despair to idyllic fulfillment.
I understand your editor asked you to create an interactive edition of your annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been reading this book for the past few weeks and I am very impressed with all of the features you’ve included in this interactive text. I think every Austen fan should own this book because it does a wonderful job immersing readers in the Regency era in ways that are meaningful to understanding Austen’s story, and quite frankly, the book is a lot of fun to explore.
Would you be willing to describe for my readers what an interactive book is in regards to the type you’ve published and what this process was like for you, including how it differed from creating your other annotated versions of Austen’s stories?
The interactive book contains the complete regular annotated version, so it is not completely different. All the annotations are the same as those in the print version. The difference is that the enhanced version also contains lots of additional features. This includes some things not by me, such as numerous clips from films, interviews with other experts on Austen, and study questions.
But there are many things I added as well. The first that comes to mind are tons of additional pictures, most of them in color (many already in the print version are also now shown in color). I was able to get many high-quality paintings from the period, and I created a series of visual libraries, showing things such as clothing, furniture, houses, gardens, and places. I found pictures from the time of the places mentioned in the novel, and they are juxtaposed in the map section with pictures of those places. I selected, with my editor, recorded musical excerpts of songs found in Jane Austen’s own manuscripts of sheet music. I chose passages from books of the time on topics like travel, cooking, hunting, card games and dance. I also created family trees, recommendations for further reading, timelines for Austen and her period, and reviews of the filmed versions of the novel.
As for what the process, the main difference with my normal process is that there was not nearly as much writing, but there was a lot more research to find pictures and songs and texts from the time, and there was more creating of charts and lists and diagrams. So it was a different kind of work, which was a nice change of pace, though I think in general I would rather spend most of my time writing than doing these with other types of work.
So we have the novels, and we have the novelist. What is your response to Jane’s overwhelming popularity?
My first response is simply that it’s wonderful. I have long considered Austen to be by far the greatest novelist in English (and, along with Tolstoy, one of the two greatest novelists generally), so it is heartening to see so many readers appreciating. It shows that there is still is a strong audience out there for great literature. It also shows that, ultimately, quality will out. Austen, while not overlooked in her own time, was never very popular, and she faded to a great degree in the fifty years after her death. She was somewhat rediscovered after that, and was read by many and regarded as a major English writer, though she still long took a backseat to other major writers like Dickens. Now, however, a little more than two hundred years later, she is read and treasured many than any classic novelist, and deservedly so.
Can you explain to my readers why you believe that Jane Austen is the best novelist to reread?
Because she is so subtle and understated, as well as so complex. There is an extraordinary amount going on in the passages of her novels, for she is usually doing several things at once, such as presenting the action, commenting on the action, revealing the nature of the characters, and exploring the themes. But unlike many novelists, she does not draw attention to what she is doing or hit you over the head with her points. Hence you do not notice many things initially.
A very mundane example is at the end of the chapter about Elizabeth’s first dinner at Lady Catherine’s. The last paragraph begins:
“When Lady Catherine and her daughter had played as long as they chose, the tables were broke up, the carriage was offered to Mrs. Collins, gratefully accepted, and immediately ordered.”
On the surface this is a straightforward narrative sentence, telling you the party has finished. Yet it conveys so much despite its brevity. As soon as Lady Catherine and her daughter are tired of playing, everyone else must stop and leave. At the same time, Lady Catherine does offer the carriage, and to Mrs. Collins; hence she follows correct etiquette for a hostess. Mrs. Collins accepts gratefully, a sign of her and her husband’s deference, if not sycophancy. Finally, Lady Catherine, once the correct forms of asking and answering have finished, returns to her usual peremptoriness, and impatience to have the visitors gone, by ordering the carriage immediately.
Noticing all these elements in a single sentence is something you are only likely to do on later readings, after becoming familiar enough with the plot to pay attention to smaller things and becoming familiar enough with the characters to perceive further signs of the characters’ natures and relationships.
I have included several images from your interactive Pride & Prejudice book. Can you tell us about the ones that you think will give readers a good sense of what to expect from this book and why it’s such a unique reading experience?
The first picture shows a clip from the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth version of the novel, which is a significant feature of this book, and not what you’d usually find in a book.
The next picture, from the cover, shows the procedure of tapping numbers, which you use to access the annotations, and the one after that lists some of the features of the book, including the ability to listen to an audio version while you read.
The fourth is an example of the high-quality paintings of the time that are included (you can see it in greater detail in the book) along with the summary of the action that is provided at the start of each chapter; this summary only appears by tapping the top, and will disappear, thereby revealing the full picture again, with another tap.
After that comes a simple picture of an annotation that shows how you can, by pressing the arrows at the bottom, go from one annotation to another; the book thus allows you either to read each annotation singly, and then return to the novel text, or to read only the annotations.
Finally, the sixth and seventh pictures are from two of the back sections, “dancing” and “food”; each section has both images and text (in this case a recipe of the time).
Thank you, David, for your time with this in-depth interview and this detailed look into the first interactive eBook based on a Jane Austen novel. I hope we see you publish more of these interactive books based on Jane’s stories in the near future.
I must also say that this is a book that I believe every reader of Jane Austen must own for him/herself. The interactive features add so much depth to the context of this story, as well as the era that Jane lived within. Even someone well-versed in the world of Jane Austen can find a lot to appreciate throughout this book.
David has kindly agreed to come back to my blog throughout the next 10 days to answer my readers’ questions about his work, Jane Austen, or any other questions you’d like to ask him related to this interview. Please ask your questions in the comments section below and David will get back to you throughout the next several days.
Readers can also enjoy these additional interviews of David Shapard at the links below:
You can watch David’s interview for his local library.
It’s Giveaway Time
We would love to get a copy of this interactive eBook into one of my reader’s hands. This eBook is sold through Apple’s iTunes Store and is an iBook. It can be read with the iBook App on an iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch or Mac computer. iBook is already installed on many Apple devices.
To enter this giveaway please leave a comment on this post no later than midnight, ET on July 16th. The winner will be announced on this blog on July 17, 2017.
I’d like to thank David Shapard for his hard work in creating such an important contribution to Jane Austen’s work through the creation of his annotated novels and now also through his interactive Pride & Prejudice eBook. I also want to thank him for his time with this interview post. He really is such a generous Austen admirer!
Visit iTunes to add this book to your bookshelf.