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Annotating Jane Austen: What Would Elinor Do?

  Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.
-Sense and Sensibility

When Laura McDonald, the publisher of Girlebooks, asked me to annotate a new edition of Sense and Sensibility, I immediately said yes, because it sounded like a lot of fun. (I am all about fun when it comes to Jane Austen.) It turned out to be a much larger task than I had imagined, though even more fun than I thought.

The philosophy of this new edition was not to create a super-scholarly edition for jaded Janeites; we wanted to create a book that would be useful, fun, and attractive for 21st-century Austen fans, who were using and enjoying the book in new ways, including digitally. I thought that the approach I took to The Jane Austen Handbook–to try to explain the things about Jane Austen’s world that puzzled me as a first-time Austen reader–would work well for a general edition. I also planned “extras” such as the inclusion of related books and films, and the best extra of all would be provided by my friend, collaborator, and co-conspirator, Cassi Chouinard: charming illustrations with Cassi’s inimitable sense of humor that is so well-suited to illustrating Austen.

I was also pleased at the prospect of being able to offer an inexpensive ebook edition of the novel that still offered so many extras. My fellow ebook devotees know how frustrating it is to download a free public domain book with formatting issues and poor scanning and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) issues. I appreciate Girlebooks’ public domain offerings because they are so well-done. OCR issues are minimal, and the hand-formatted texts are attractive and very easy to use, with nicely designed covers–way more attractive than the many public domain editions from dodgy “publishers” on the various ebook platforms–as well as a proper table of contents and other formatting that makes navigating the ebook easy. I’ve made a few ebooks in my time, so I know how much work Laura puts into the site.

I thought it absolutely necessary to include a short biography of Jane Austen and suggestions for further reading about Austen’s life and work: books I have found useful and informative, and that I consulted while writing the annotations. I also thought that since we were making an edition for the 21st-century reader, a reflection of the more fun aspects of Austen fandom were also called for: lists of film adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, and some of the many paraliterature titles inspired by the novel. The general perception is that Austen paraliterature is nearly all Pride and Prejudice inspired (and certainly the vast majority is so inspired) but I was surprised how many books were inspired by Sense and Sensibility.

The best part about the project was the opportunity to immerse myself thoroughly in Sense and Sensibility. Having never before annotated a novel, I didn’t realize how submerged in the text one becomes; and such a delightful text it is! Sense and Sensibility is a truly remarkable novel–screamingly funny, shockingly truthful, with just enough romance and a happy ending. The characters are uniformly charming.

After spending the summer with Elinor Dashwood (resulting in a lot of What Would Elinor Do? comments on Twitter on my part), she is now my favorite heroine. Elinor is the embodiment of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling (himself a Janeite): “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Why then, you’ll be an Austen heroine, my dear! And yet Elinor is not annoyingly perfect; no picture of perfection to make us sick & wicked; and she has a wicked sense of humor to keep her from seeming priggish. In one of the best lines in any of Austen’s novels, when Robert Ferrars rattles on ridiculously about cottages, she “agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” Elinor sees people clearly and has little patience with their foibles–except for Marianne, of course–but she maintains her civil exterior and always treats people with polite kindness and scrupulous ethics, especially when it is deserved–and even, in the case of Lucy Steele, when it is not.

Hilarious minor characters abound: Miss Steele, Robert Ferrars, the Middletons, the Palmers, Mrs. Jennings; as well as purely nasty ones: Lucy Steele and Mrs. Ferrars; and one of the most romantic heroes ever, Colonel Brandon. I have long been a vocal member of Team Brandon–indeed, from the first time I read Sense and Sensibility; not being seventeen years old and overly romantic, I was not frightened off by the flannel waistcoat. I can even appreciate the much-maligned Edward Ferrars, who is not a stuttering fool as he is sometimes portrayed. He is a man who can appreciate the qualities of Elinor Dashwood, and that’s a high recommendation in my book.

Sense and Sensibility is a delight, and, I think, gets an undeserved bad rap in some quarters. If you haven’t read it in a while, why not give it another try? And when faced with a dilemma, you, too, can ask yourself: What Would Elinor Do? Because if you do, it’s hard to go wrong.

Along with annotating the Jane Austen Bicentenary Library Edition of Sense and Sensibility, Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook and There Must Be Murder, a sequel novella to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She also is the author of “Heard of You,” a short story inspired by Persuasion, in Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress. Maggie is the Editrix of and the Jane Austen resource site She is slightly in awe of Elinor Dashwood, and trying hard not to be such a Marianne.


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Publishing Austen in the E-Book World


“Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he; “that is rather singular.”
“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else.”
-Pride and Prejudice

Laura McDonald, founder of Girlebooks, a  publishing company specializing ebook versions of classic women’s literature, recently agreed to an interview regarding Girlebooks’ bicentenary edition of Sense and Sensibility. Here’s what she had to say about Austen, digital literature and of course, Girlebooks:

Laura, Tell us about your company. How did Girlebooks get started?
The idea germinated around 2005. My mom and I had been reading ebooks, mostly free ones from Project Gutenberg, on our PDAs for several years. This was before PG started offering ebooks in various formats, so we were stuck with with the plain text version of the ebooks, line breaks and all. I had formulated a method of turning these plain texts into nicely formatted ebooks, and I would share them with friends. I did this for a couple of years and in the meantime started a web development business with my husband. In early 2007 I had the idea of creating a website to share these formatted ebooks with more than just my friends. Since I read mostly classic literature by women authors, I decided to concentrate on this niche. I also decided to make an attractive presentation for browsing and finding new ebooks to read, something which I thought was lacking on the PG site. Thus was born Girlebooks!

What kind of books do you publish?
We publish ebooks with a concentration on women authors and classic literature. We’ve recently started publishing ebooks by contemporary authors.

Do you seek out authors or do the authors come to you?
Since the contemporary works are a new part of our business and we are still feeling our way around in it, we have been relying on authors coming to us. However, for the new Sense and Sensibility edition annotated by Margaret C. Sullivan and illustrated by Cassandra Chouinard, I approached them with the idea. They had made such a great pairing in our previous release There Must Be Murder that I thought it would be great to team them up again with some classic Jane Austen.

What made you decide to publish a 200th anniversary edition of Sense and Sensibility?
We offer all of our public domain ebooks for free, since free ebooks and sharing amongst friends was at the root of why I started the site. But I also want to add on value to these ebooks, give visitors some more options that they may not get at other ebook sites. So we’ve started offering illustrated and/or annotated versions of our ebooks for a small fee. It seemed natural to start with Jane Austen since she is the most popular author on the site. And since it was the 200th anniversary of the initial publication of Sense and Sensibility, Margaret Sullivan suggested that book would be a great place to start.

One of Cassandra Chouinard's illustrations of Sense and Sensibility.

What do you think sets the Girlebooks edition apart from other editions of the novel?
While we did put out a paperback version of the book, our edition of Sense and Sensibility is in its natural habitat on the ereader. I also believe it is the only edition that is both annotated and illustrated by a contemporary author/illustrator (as opposed to illustrations by Hugh Thomson for instance).

You publish other editions of all of Jane Austen’s books as well. How popular are they compared to other classic authors?
Jane Austen’s ebooks are definitely the most popular downloads, and all of her ebooks are in the top 20 of our highest rated. The Brontes and Elizabeth Gaskell aren’t far behind. Ann Radcliffe is very popular, mostly due to the influence of Northanger Abbey I’m sure.

How do you decide which classic novels to promote?
At the beginning it was easy to find new classic novels to publish. Now it’s getting a little harder since we have to dig pretty deep to find the gems we haven’t already published. But I really love digging and finding–it’s one of the things I love most about running the site. I read reviews by book bloggers who also love digging and finding, so I get a lot of ideas from them. If a blogger has written a great review, I will often ask if I can republish her review on our own blog when I publish the ebook.

Tell us a little bit about the process of creating an ebook.
We get most of our texts from Project Gutenberg. If we can’t find the text on PG, we have our own proofreading initiative to prepare them for submission to PG and our own ebook catalog. Once I have the text, I first format the book in Microsoft Word or Open Office. I then generate the PDF and Kindle/Mobipocket versions from that. From the Mobipocket version, I generate the ePub and LIT ebooks via Calibre. My method of creating the ebooks might be a little dated, but it works great for all the various ebook formats, especially PDF which remains the most popular ebook format.

How does the ebook process differ from creating a book for print?
Print requires a much higher resolution, so creating the book cover art is probably the most time consuming part. This is added to the fact that you need to create a front cover and back cover and spine and make them all line up perfectly so you don’t have the spine running onto the covers. Then you have the interior which is a bit easier than the cover to format but does require some additional formatting that is not required or necessary for ebooks. I basically have a lot more freedom with formatting ebooks. Print publishing is very picky, costly, and time consuming, and honestly I don’t have as much fun with it as I do with ebook publishing.

What do you think about the rising popularity of ebooks?
I am extremely happy about it since it allows me to share my love of ebooks with other people. For the longest time my mom and husband were the only other people I knew who read ebooks. I eventually convinced a few friends to read ebooks too. But now with big companies putting serious effort into marketing ebooks, we have so many more people reading and loving ebooks. I love it.

What do you say to people who insist that paper books are better?
If people really love reading paper books and hate ebooks, I have no problem with that. I’m not out to rid the world of paper books or to convince hard core paper book lovers that they are wrong. The people I want to get in touch with through the site are the people who love ebooks. We have visitors from all over the world, from many parts of the world where paper books are prohibitively expensive, and now they can read a PDF on their computer instantaneously instead of saving up money to buy a paper book that may or may not be available at their local bookstore. This is why I think PDF is still the most popular ebook format on the site. People reading our ebooks on dedicated ereaders (that generally don’t use the PDF format) are still a minority of our audience.

I also think that the quantity of people who insist paper books are better is diminishing. Ebooks are very different from paper books. Both have different applications for different needs. I believe more people are seeing that ebooks are just more convenient for a variety of situations. It’s not a black and white issue, and you don’t have to chose sides.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are your favorite novel and favorite Jane Austen novel?
Of course I love reading classic literature. It happens that my favorite books are written by women–I’m not sure why that is, but I think I’m not alone! My favorite novel is probably Jane Eyre--it could be that I have a nostalgic attachment to that novel simply from the number of times I have read it. It was also the first ebook I published for the site. My favorite Jane Austen novel: I’m going to have to be unoriginal again and say Pride and Prejudice. My attachment may also be nostalgic since this was the first Jane Austen novel I read, and I remember sharing my love of it with a group of friends who also couldn’t get enough of it (or the 1995 adaptation). Maybe strangely, I also have an attachment to Mansfield Park. I don’t like the prim and proper way it ended, but I do have a fascination with the two Crawford characters. I would love to see a sequel where they are somehow redeemed–I have hinted this to our Austenesque authors, and maybe we will see something come of that…

Aside from those books, over the years in digging up books for Girlebooks I have come to love epistolary novels which were a very popular format of novel in the late 1700s. I believe an early draft of Pride and Prejudice is said to have been epistolary. I think this format of novel should be resuscitated, however one has to be a very good writer to pull it off. I also love travelogues–there were many women adventurers who wrote down their stories, mostly in the form of letters back home (also epistolary!). Isabella Bird wrote enchanting letters from her travels to Hawaii and over the Rocky Mountains that were later compiled into books. Mary Kingsley traveled extensively through West Africa to many places never visited by a white man, much less a woman, and wrote about it in Travels in West Africa. Our next release is Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart. A widowed mother, she left Denver to set up her own homestead in Wyoming and wrote to a friend about her experiences.

Without Girlebooks as impetus, I wouldn’t have discovered Elizabeth von Arnim or Florence Barclay or Jean Webster. These authors wrote what are now some of my favorite books, and I hope many others have learned about these authors as a result of the site.

Laura McDonald is a web developer by trade who enjoys long walks on the moors–er–hills of Central Texas.