Even if you know nothing about Jane Austen, never read one of her novels, and never seen a movie adaptation of them, you still have to admire the sheer depth and detail of the data collected in this book of Jane Austen covers. It is, frankly, eye-popping. Who’d have known? And who would’ve thought of doing this, other than Margaret Sullivan, a dedicated “Janeite” and consummate Austen collector and expert? Janeites, for those who don’t know, is the term used by devotees of Jane Austen to describe themselves, but it is also the term used to mock these “self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasts” for their passion for an England that is long gone.
In an earlier blog-post, I had commented on authors who achieved cult status long after their deaths, rather than in their life-times, in part due to the pervasive impact of the internet and the media. Jane Austen is one such.
It may be 200 years (yep, 200!) since her most celebrated novel, Pride and Prejudice, was published, but around the world, particularly in the US, Jane Austen is now the subject of growing, and somewhat inexplicable, fan-worship. “With their conventions, Regency costumes and self-written “sequels” to their heroine’s novels, Austen’s most dedicated adherents display a fervency easily rivalling that of the subcultures around Star Trek or Harry Potter…[They] don elaborate period dress and throw Jane Austen-themed tea parties and balls.”
Blogs and forums dedicated to Austen and Austen-style fan fiction abound across the internet. The Jane Austen Society of North America (Jasna) boasts 4,500 members and no fewer than 65 branches. “There’s a longing for the elegance of the time,” says Myretta Robens, who manages one of the most popular US Austen fan sites, The Republic of Pemberley. “It’s an escape.” (Janeites were gently made fun of in the 2013 film Austenland, about a woman who is obsessed with Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, and travels to a fictional British resort called Austenland, in which the Austen era is recreated. )
A scholarly approach – rather than fan-frenzy
Ms. Sullivan’s authorship shows a more serious sensibility, pardon the pun. She is less about waffling passionately about Austen’s plots, settings and characters, and more about critically reviewing the some 200 different cover designs of printings of Austen’s books, from 1811 to 2013.
Sullivan is an astute curator, showing both the classical, valuable editions, and the odd, quirky and somewhat misguided ones, contextualizing each in the history of book printing, translation and design, and the language and fashion of the times. Occasionally she even shows an Austenian wit and choice of words.
Take for instance, the “Harlequin Romance”-type cover design of the Heritage Classic 2008 edition of Pride and Prejudice, with a rather luscious but oddly anxious-looking blonde holding on for dear life to a man who would not be a gentleman, judging by his outfit. (Well, they do say many Janeites would have liked a lot more passion in Austen’s work, some even resorting to writing their own – steamier – sequels and imaginings of the marital exploits of characters like Mr. Darcy. So the cover might appeal to a certain type of reader.)
Then there is the skinny version of Pride and Prejudice, part of the Changjiang Literature Series published in 2010, which has a sweet Regency couple on the cover, but oddly, also the comment: “classic world literature collection – youth edition.” At 179 pages – about the same thickness as the severely reduced and rewritten editions of the novel meant for middle-grade readers – “the translator may also have pruned the original text or it may have been otherwise shortened (that is, censored).” Oops…the temerity of messing with the mistress of the novel of manners!
This edition is a good example of the difficulties that come with translating the works of Austen, in which the portrayals of British society of the time is a character in itself – the setting as character, in other words. As Sullivan says: “The novels of Jane Austen are not merely in English, they are English.”
As a result, Austen’s texts in translation have been variously “whittled”, “slightly changed”, had “cultural adjustments” made to it, suffered from “smoothing” and “excisions”, and so on. Translations into languages of countries where the cultural gap was largest – Russia, Japan, China – were done much later and they vary in quality. As Sullivan points out, over the centuries, the quality of translations have improved and translators show much more respect now for Austen’s style of writing.
Illustrations that reflect the times
The same can be said of the illustrations on the covers. While all of Austen’s books were written between 1811 and 1880 – a mere 19 years – and reflect the style of the time, subsequent editions have not always gotten the Regency styling of all her novels correct.
There are out of place bonnets, bustles, and bosoms that would not have been seen in the period. Wrong on purpose, and firmly tongue-in- cheek, are Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters (award-winning author of The Last Policeman series), published as Quirk Classics, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. It’s fascinating, throughout, to see how the tastes, mores and styles of readers – and therefore the covers, and the contents to a certain degree – have changed. It was like looking at the differences between Georges Remi (Hergé’s) original rough, black and white Tintin comic strips of the 1920s, and the sophisticated, full colour, carefully composed books of the 1960s and 70s.
From classic prints to e-books
From graphic novels, to e-books, film versions, collectable editions, children’s variations and the original (rather sad and shabbily done) first editions, the book includes every version worth mentioning. For a woman who only completed 6 novels for adults, died young, age 41, never married, and never left home, Austen certainly has had a remarkable influence on romantic fiction writers and the genre. In Sullivan’s words in the preface: “These things were a direct result of my purchase of that two-dollar [Austen] paperback. I can say with confidence that it changed my life.” Poor Jane Austen did not make money out of her books – her agreements with publishers did not net her a fortune or even a steady income.
Fame after death
After Austen’s death her works were introduced to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer. The second half of the 20th century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship and the emergence of a Janeite fan culture, particularly on the back of a spate of film and TV versions of her books, starting in 1980, peaking in the 1990s and continuing today.
So to see all these editions, from all over the world, from just one little English-woman’s imaginings, is, on the one hand, quite surprising. On the other hand, it is thanks to Sullivan’s serious approach to the subject that one gets a renewed appreciation of Austen’s oeuvre.
About the author
Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World (Quirk Books, 2007) and contributed Heard of You to the anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress (Random House, 2011). Sullivan is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. She is the founder of AustenBlog.com. Her favorite Austen novel is Persuasion. She Tweets as @mcsullivan and has an active Facebook page.