Retired U.Va. English Professor Revisits Jane Austen's World

December 03, 2010

December 3, 2010 — Patricia Meyer Spacks has continued her scholarship of Jane Austen and 18th-century English literature, despite being retired from the University of Virginia.

Harvard University Press recently published her new annotated edition of "Pride and Prejudice," a novel she said she has read 40 or 50 times. 

"The book is accessible without any special knowledge, although knowledge enriches it; that, of course, is the basic premise of the annotated edition," said Spacks, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English Emerita in the College of Arts & Sciences.

She has edited Austen's "Persuasion" and several Norton anthologies of Western and world literature, and has written a shelf of books, including "Privacy: Concealing the 18th Century Self," "Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind," "Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels" and "Imagining a Self: Autobiography and the Novel in 18th Century Fiction."

She recently answered a few questions about what is so special about Austen's work.

Q: What accounts for the enduring popularity of "Pride and Prejudice"?

A: "Pride and Prejudice" endures, I think, because it offers something for readers at every level. Teen-aged girls read it for romance; it supplies a version of the familiar fairy-tale plot in which the ordinary girl gets to marry the prince. Grown-ups can read it for the same reason, or for its psychological and social insight, or (as a woman in China explained to me in 1980) for "its grace, its wit, its irony." People like me can read it 40 or
50 times and find something new every time.

Q: What keeps you going back to Jane Austen? Do you have another project in the works?

I keep going back for all the reasons above, and more. Which brings me to my next project: I'm close to completing a book on re-reading as a practice, in which I meditate on reasons for reading a book – any book – multiple times and discuss some of the discoveries I have made in various re-readings of my own, as well as implications of those discoveries. My book includes a chapter on Austen, in which, despite having just written copiously about "Pride and Prejudice," I find yet more to say about it (as well as "Emma").

Q: Why did you want to put together this annotated edition?

A: Initially, I didn't! An editor from Harvard University Press approached me, asking me to do it. I was deeply involved in writing about re-reading and reluctant to put that project aside. The editor was fairly persistent, and after a few days I agreed, thinking that I could quickly annotate Austen's novel out of my head, having read it many times and having taught it repeatedly, to college and university students at every level, freshman through graduate student, and at least twice to faculty seminars. I could hardly have been more wrong.

Annotating the novel required considerable research and a great deal of thought, but it was an exhilarating activity. I was sorry to come to the end; I learned an enormous amount in the process of writing the notes, and I found it interesting to reflect about why a large number of notes could be valuable to a book that, as I said earlier, is available to most readers with no explanation at all. I write about this matter in the introduction.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications