Jane Austen is rare among writers: she has remained a perennial favourite with readers since her novels were first published in the early 19th century and has sustained scholarly and critical analysis. Her novels have been read, loved, studied, parodied, satirised, plagiarised, dramatised and filmed for the big and small screen. Her characters have entered the cultural psyche and her works are stalwarts of the literary canon. Every aspect of each novel has intensely examined, evaluated and re-evaluated from every perspective by generations of readers, students and academics. Walter Scott admired Austen. Charlotte Bronte did not. Edward Said saw her as complicit in the agency of Empire and oppression, an allegation others have defended her against with passion and vigour. But the packaging of her books – the bindings, covers and artwork of her novels – is the Cinderella area of Austen studies. With the notable exception of Deirdre Gilbert’s 2008 short essay for Jane Austen Society of North America, From Cover to Cover: Packaging Jane Austen from Egerton to Kindle, what little commentary there is tends to have been incidental.
Margaret C Sullivan’s Jane Austen Cover to Cover – 200 Years of Classic Cover is a superb and tantalising start to plugging that gap. It is itself elegantly designed and generously proportioned. It feels as good as it looks and overflows with high-quality reproductions of a sparkling range of bindings, cover art and dust jackets which have adorned and, in some cases, detracted from or obscured Austen’s texts. The generously, gorgeously presented illustrations take centre stage. Yet Sullivan’s own regard for Austen shines through on every page. Her commentary is not only lovingly crafted but also insightful, well-researched and tempered with personality and humour. At times it also delightfully pointed. So brew a cuppa, lean back and let Margaret Sullivan take you on a lively and educational 200 year tour of the fabulous, beautiful, misleading and sometimes, frankly, dull or bizarre ways in which Austen’s works have been presented to the book-buying public.
But do not dismiss Cover to Cover simply as a coffee table book – although it is that – as there is depth here too, both in the scope of the survey and in Sullivan’s interpretation. It is a sort of reverse reception history.
Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park were first published by Thomas Egerton between 1811 and 1814. Austen subsequently moved to the more prestigious publisher of Lord Bryon and Walter Scott, John Murray, who produced first Emma and then, a year after Austen’s death in 1817, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion together in a single, four-volume edition. At this time, as Sullivan explains, books, once printed and assembled, were usually sold either unbound or wrapped in plain card with a simple paper label affixed. Wealthier readers may then have their books bound to match their family library or personal tastes. As a result, the appearance of early editions of Austen’s works are not uniform, but are often lavishly bound in full calf or morocco leather with heavy gilt lettering or half bound in leather with beautiful marbled paper, so typical of the age, covering the remaining portions.
Richard Bentley, who purchased the copyright to five of Austen’s six novels from her sister Cassandra shortly after the author’s death, produced a series of small cloth-bound volumes which sold for six shillings when they were published in 1832, extending Austen’s readership to those of lesser means. What Sullivan doesn’t say is that the Bentley editions were remarkable as much for their feel as their look. As Deirdre Gilbert explains, “Bentley’s covers were the first to include a sales strategy that not so much caught the eye and rather replaced the eye. Anthony Rota in Apart from the Text details how the Bentley ‘get up’ proved ingenious not so much for its cover look, but for its cover ‘feel’. Poor lighting forced shopkeepers to grope among dark bookshelves. On the spines and covers, Bentley included a wide range of ornaments that one could feel: ‘ribs, rugosities, and other crenellations. The texture of the Bentley cover was recognisable; chances are that a missing Bentley title would be noticed quickly and selected for reorder over others”.
Sullivan presents other early editions briefly but the real fun starts with the beginning of illustrated covers – a process which Sullivan tentatively identifies as starting with the coming of frequent train travel: smoother ride and lighter than a horse-drawn carriage, train carriages facilitated reading on the part of the newly literate middle classes. W H Smith capitalised on this, opening a bookstall at London’s Euston station at the height of railway mania in 1848. The first of many station bookshops, it sold cheap ‘yellow back’ editions of popular fiction to train travellers. With lurid, sensationalised covers designed to tempt travellers, these were the cheapest editions of Austen’s works published to date.
Sullivan features one of the most beautiful books ever produced. The 1894 ‘Peacock’ edition of Pride and Prejudice is “the first truly iconic edition of Austen’s work”. With stunning gilt decoration on the front cover (and 130 black and white line drawings internally) by Hugh Thomson, one of the most popular illustrators of the era, the Peacock is still much prized by collectors. This edition is interesting too for the introduction written by the literary critic George Saintsbury in which he coins the term “Janeites”, although spelt here as Janite. The Peacock was swiftly followed by deluxe editions of Sense and Sensibility and Emma illustrated, unusually for the time, by a women, Chris Hammond. As Sullivan points outs, by incorporating more Art Nouveau touches, the Hammond editions reflected developing trends in art and aesthetic taste.
Highlighting just a few among the hundreds of covers that Sullivan presents should give a strong flavour of Cover to Cover. Among those which may be familiar to some are the wonderful Brock watercolour editions from J M Dent in the early days of the 20th century. Harking back to a simpler, purer age, Brock’s illustrations lead the reader away from the troubling disruptions of industrialisation and urbanisation and the horrendous prospect of war to an idealised time in which the nation was more at ease; and the post-war, egalitarian and elegantly utilitarian Penguin editions from the father of the paperback, Allen Lane. The c 1950 edition of Emma, in which the cover illustrator forgoes featuring the hero and instead, in an abundance of contemporary cliché, selects the more risqué, tipsy Mr Elton, making his Christmas Eve proposal to Emma in the cosily romantic privacy of a carriage, probably less familiar but reveals contemporary marketing practices.
Sullivan argues that “in retrospect, the 1960s and 1970s seem almost too hip for Jane Austen”. This may seem glib, but Sullivan makes her case well, drawing evidence from both trends in scholarly analysis. Critical activity was at that time dominated by New Criticism which favoured concentration on the text to the exclusion of contextual matters – too serious and too grand to be diverted by extraneous contextual matters. These were also the decades in which publishers of soapy, formulaic romantic fiction such as Harlequin and Silhouette were hugely popular. Witness the hyper-gothic treatment accorded to Northanger Abbey by the Paperback Library in 1965, which was complemented with the tagline of which any horror B movie might be proud: “the terror of Northanger Abbey has no name, no shape – yet it menaced…in the dead of night”.
Cover to Cover also presents cover art from Austen’s minor and incomplete works, as well as a bedazzling array of foreign language editions, parodies, sequels, movie tie-ins, and parodies and later editions of Austen six major novels right up to the early years of the present century.
Among the most memorable is the e-book cover of Sense and Sensibility which manages to have not one but two spelling mistakes in within five words of text, seeming to sum up so much of what is wrong with the ways in which some e-books are published; and the fantastic 2013 re-imaging of Fitzwilliam Darcy as a smoldering, cigarette-smoking pulp fiction anti-hero by David Mann for Pulp the Classics.
There’s very little not to like in Cover to Cover but it is not perfect. The first of two low points for me was the introduction, which I found overly-soapy and sycophantic: “Many an Austen heroine must learn to read other people better, beyond first impressions, and to know herself well. Elizabeth Bennett, the writer’s most beloved heroine, judged her relatives, her neighbors, and, certainly, Mr Darcy, with his taciturn and unfriendly demeanour. So how can Janeites, trained in such a school, do any differently? If Austen teaches us anything, it is that first impressions are often false…” (p.7). The second was one of the later chapters which purports to give tips for those tempted to take tentative steps into the world of book collecting. The guidance is so high-level, so cursory, that I cannot help but think that the novice collector may have been better served by a simple reference to a decent general guide to book collecting, such as John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. (The most recent edition of Carter’s book is freely available as a PDF on the ILAB website.)
But these are small flaws which do not detract from the pleasure of Cover to Cover. It is a study which, in a gentle and accessible way, begins to hint at how literary taste, target audiences and book marketing and manufacturing processes can be illuminated by book packaging. Be dazzled by the artwork and illustrations, laugh at the bizarre, read it as an introductory bibliographical history or as a social commentary – whatever approach you take to Cover to Cover, it delivers. Few, even among avid Austen aficionados, will be able to browse Cover to Cover for half an hour without discovering some new fact or an alternative, previously unconsidered perspective on Austen or her legacy. But be warned! It could trigger a whole new passion for collecting books for their covers or a serious interest in book design. Cover to Cover is lovely: Sullivan has given this Cinderella a beautiful, haute couture ball-gown.
You can see a random collect of Jane Austen’s book covers on this Pin Interest Board: Jane Austen Book Covers.
Jane Austen Cover to Cover – 200 Years of Classic Covers by Margaret C Sullivan is published by Quirk Books on 11 November 2014 at £19.99. ISBN 978-159 474 7250.