Reading Jane Austen with Vladimir Nabokov

Guest post by Janine Barchas

Great writers are great readers. And nothing dials up the magnification on a book like the green-eyed gaze of a fellow author.

In 2014, many Jane Austen fans have been rereading what is arguably her darkest and most difficult novel in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentenary. One unique copy of that novel, formerly owned by Russian-born American novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), enables the rereading of one great novelist over the shoulder of another.

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During the 1940s and 1950s, Nabokov taught at Wellesley and Cornell. He lectured there on fiction, placing Austen on his syllabus alongside Flaubert, Dickens, Proust, Kafka, and Joyce. The Austen novel he chose to teach was, ambitiously, Mansfield Park. Nabokov’s battered and marked-up teaching copy (an Everyman’s Library reprint from 1948) currently resides in the New York Public Library as part of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The bulk of his local annotations in that copy remain unpublished.

Nabokov’s landmark lectures, however, were impeccably edited by Fredson Bowers and published as Lectures on Literature in 1980. The lectures remain an entertaining read, especially if you like your literary criticism dosed with equal amounts of snark and pedantry. But perhaps Nabokov’s keenest insights into Austen’s style may be gleaned from the raw marginal annotations in his copy of Mansfield Park, made during multiple re-readings over many years of teaching.

Nabokov’s copious annotations taught me much about Austen’s unique handling of temporal and spatial distance. In the margins of his copy and on separate sheets of notepaper, Nabokov draws charts, maps, and diagrams, makes lists of dates and names, and calculates distances, incomes, or ages from the numerical crumbs dropped by Austen. Guided by her descriptions, he maps the grounds at Sotherton Court, sketches a barouche to determine the spatial arrangements of the characters in a carriage, and lays out the rooms of Mansfield with architectural confidence. He also sketches maps of England, including a small one in the top corner of his copy’s opening page, noting the locations of both real and imaginary places mentioned in the text, such as “Portsmouth,” “Huntingdon,” “Hampshire,” “London,” “MP.”  He triangulates the presumed location of Mansfield Park from the stated distances to real-world cities: “120 m” between MP and Portsmouth, “50” from Portsmouth to London, and “70 m” from London to MP.  He circles her alliterations and underlines important phrases. This is what happens when one great novelist takes another seriously.


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