This is a marvelous book, non-fiction of the best kind. It documents most known editions of Jane Austen's novels, their covers and illustrations, from the first modest printing of Sense and Sensibility in 1811 (print run of 750 copies) until now.
The author structured her book by time periods, with a mini-essay for each and short write-ups about Austen's many illustrators and cover artists over the past 200 years. Her special mention of Hugh Thomson—one of the leading illustrators in the end of the 19th century—found me in complete agreement. I looked up his work on the Internet: it's amazing. Actually, this book sent me to the Internet more than once, as I felt compelled to learn more about certain artists or publishers who tried their hands with Austen's oeuvre. Some factoids I knew. Others were unknown to me:
As the world heaved into the conflicts that would define the earlier twentieth century, Jane Austen—or her writing, at least—was drafted into service. During World War I, British soldiers took her books into the trenches and barracks, and those who later suffered from shell-shock were often advised to read her novels to calm their nerves. Her stories, full of humor and free from melodrama, represented aspects of British society that the war had ripped away.
With the advent of the 20th century, the covers changed, reflecting more their own times than that of Austen. Some 20th century artists adhered to the Regency style of dress and hair, contemporary for Austen, while others employed a more eclectic illustration mode, with dresses a mix of Victorian and Regency fashions, hairstyles belonging to neither. Sullivan comments:
Such anachronisms were once a matter of course. In fact, publishers at this time felt no need to reflect details accurate to the setting. Many were content with images that merely conveyed a flavor of 'the past'—whatever past they imagined it to be.
Many publishers adopted Austen's books for their needs and reader contingents, with cover art adjusted accordingly. Some covers of mid-century romance publishers are pointedly lurid, while the 1960s and 70s covers comply with the hip vogue—somewhat. Many covers have nothing to do with Austen or her time and everything to do with modern (for that era) readers. I wouldn't even suspect an Austen novel from some of those covers, if they didn't bear her name.
Occasionally, the covers are hilarious in their imagery, and so are Sullivan's biting commentaries. She doesn't pull her punches. One 1990s cover from Tor bears a tagline "Mom's fishing for husbands—But the girls are hunting for love..." I wonder: did that tagline writer ever read any of Austen's novels?
Sullivan pokes fun at some of the more ridiculous modern covers but she highlighted outstanding ones too. She also dedicates a part of her book to Austen spinoffs: movies and manga, zombie twists, abridged versions, and translations.
The language of the text is beautiful and terse. Nothing extra, just like Austen, no attempt to embellish or elaborate. Sullivan's book also skims a linked topic, the progression of book printing, from calf-skin covered books in Austen's lifetime to cheap paperbacks of the 1940s and ebooks now. One small press in particular issued an ebook (cover on page 130) with mistakes made in both the book title and the author's name. Sullivan crucifies that edition, but alas, there is a similar mistake in her own book. On page 223, in the credits for the cover art, both the artist's name and the title of his painting are misspelled.
Despite this one insignificant glitch, this is a glorious book. Recommended to everyone.
Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook, editrix of Austenblog.com, and an active member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Visit her website, Tilneys & Trap-doors, & blog, Austen Blog.
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