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Pop culture’s Jane Austen mania that began with 1995’s televised Pride and Prejudice, particularly when Darcy / Colin Firth emerged from a pond in a transparent wet shirt, is currently having a second incarnation. And it will have about as much authenticity (or perhaps “Austenticity”) in terms of what Austen actually wrote as the interpolated wet shirt scene had. Miramax’s charming, but largely fictional bio-film, “Becoming Jane,” reached American multiplexes in summer 2007, while three new British television adaptations of Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey are being shown on Public Broadcasting as part of their “Complete Jane Austen” programming in the Masterpiece series between January and April 2008. So with a new round of pop culture Austen-related events on screens big and small, it is exciting to see a new scholarly edition of Jane Austen’s fiction published by Cambridge University Press under the general editorship of Janet Todd. A new, complete, scholarly edition of a novelist’s canon published by a major academic press attests not only to the writer’s continued stature, but also to the value of continuing to re-examine her texts.
Consisting of nine handsomely bound red volumes and printed in a font that is comfortable on the eyes, the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen made its debut in December, 2005, with a three-volume “introductory set” (as the press’s website www.cup.org calls it) of Emma, Mansfield Park, and a collection of essays by various hands designed to [End Page 209] place, as the volume is aptly titled, Jane Austen in Context. All three volumes are also available individually. While chronologically the third and fourth of her novels to be published, Mansfield Park (1813) and Emma (1816) were logical choices for Cambridge to use to introduce their new edition. These novels are the two most mature and complex texts in Austen’s canon, and they feature her two most unusual heroines: Fanny Price (MP), who while physically and verbally passive, reflecting the advice in female conduct books of the day, ironically insists on an intense individualism, and Emma Woodhouse, the only Austen heroine who is “handsome, clever, and rich,” meaning she is in the unique position of not needing to marry for her financial well-being (from Emma’s first sentence, my italics). Independent of the Cambridge Austen edition, but published by the same press, is A Chronology of Jane Austen and Her Family by Deirdre Le Faye, widely regarded (including by this reviewer) as the world’s foremost living authority on Austen’s life and work. The Chronology reflects Le Faye’s thirty-year accumulation of Austen data collected on cards through her tireless exploration of Austen-related archives, both public and private. Using a much abbreviated version of her data, Le Faye also provides the excellent Austen-chronologies that appear in the Cambridge Emma, Mansfield Park, and Jane Austen in Context.
The last complete edition of Jane Austen’s fiction dates back to 1923, with Oxford University Press’s five-volume set (supplemented in 1954 by a sixth volume called Minor Works), edited by R.W. Chapman, which has since been the definitive edition. And in some ways it still is, for it set the gold standard for editing novels. Like Chapman’s edition, the Cambridge Emma is based on the first edition (1816). The final paragraph in the “Note on...