I am a compulsive cover-to-cover reader. By that I mean that I always read the introduction, notes, afterward, etc., so I know what I’m talking about when I say that many of the modern introductions to popular editions of classic books are seriously lacking. Penguin is generally better at commissioning decent introductions than many other brands out there (I’m talking to you, Modern Library. Jane Eyre deserves so much better.), but I’ve been blinded to their merits and spoiled rotten by Tony Tanner’s introductions to three of Jane Austen’s novels.
Most younger folk probably haven’t read Tanner’s introductions to Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. The Penguin paperback editions of these three novels have been updated with introductions by Ros Ballaster, Vivien Jones, and Kathryn Sutherland, but Tanner’s introductions, penned in the 1960s, have been retained in the Appendices of each book. I might have been tempted to skip the twenty-five-to-forty page essays had it not been for my obsessive compulsive literary habits, especially after reading the not-atrocious newer introductions at the front of the books.
So who is Tony Tanner and why are his introductions so vastly superior to others out there? Tanner (1935-1998) was a british literary critic, scholar, and pioneering advocate for the study of American literature in English universities. He wrote five complete works of literary analysis covering a number of British and American authors, one of which was published posthumously. He suffered from depression and alcoholism on and off for a number of years before ultimately succumbing to cancer.
Thus far, my experience reading his work has been limited to these three short essays on Austen (he also wrote a book about her), but it became clear to me very quickly that he had a singular ability to analyze the main themes of these novels in a way that is smart and accessible to the average reader. Take for example this insightful tidbit from his introduction to Pride and Prejudice:
For the first two parts of the book Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet believe that they are taking part in an action which, if turned into a fiction, should be called Dignity and Perception. They have to learn to see that their novel is more properly called Pride and Prejudice.
Tanner also has a knack for foreshadowing his own observations, resulting in more than a few “mind meld” moments (at least in my experience). For example, in his introduction to Mansfield Park, his general observations about the themes of the novel–namely the preservation of old-world virtues during a time of great change in England–caused me to draw the natural comparison between Mansfield Park and Parade’s End. I was more than pleasantly surprised to find Tanner doing just that a few pages later. Ah-ha moments like those are what make reading introductions so much fun, but unfortunately not so many scholars are as skilled at connecting the dots as Tony Tanner.
If you’re a Jane Austen fan, but haven’t discovered these analytical gems, I highly recommend purchasing the Penguin paperback editions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. (You’ll want to have a highlighter, pencil, and post-it-notes on hand.) Alas, Tanner did not write introductions to the remaining Austen novels, but his contribution to the layman Austen readers is–and always will be–significant.