October 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Jane Austen, Cover to Cover

JaneAusten_final_300dpi.jpgTo be an Austen completist would be quite a diabolical endeavor! I spent the weekend paging through a new book called Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Covers (Quirk Books, $24.95), a well designed book about book jacket design. From the first edition of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, in what appears to be bland, half-bound calf, to the 2009 Penguin PBS/BBC tie-in edition of Emma with actress Romola Garai gracing the cover, this book presents full-color illustrations of Austen cover art. The point is to see how Austen--both her work and her personal image--gets interpreted and re-interpreted, and how book packaging gets better (or worse) over time. It's heavy on the post-1980s flurry of Austen reprints, with every 'classics' publisher out there trying to cash in on Austen's popularity (thank you, Colin Firth).

Some of my favorite examples in the book: the 1894 "Peacock Edition" of Pride and Prejudice, with its lovely gilded cover design by Hugh Thomson; the 1930 World's Classics edition from OUP may be "shocking red," but is quite perfect in its compactness and simplicity; and a 2007 Daily Telegraph edition of Mansfield Park dons an "Edward Gorey-esque cast of black-clad characters, a butterfly with groovy sixties brightness, and snaking roses" by Brett Ryder. The book's author, Margaret C. Sullivan, who has also written The Jane Austen Handbook and edits Austenblog.com, comments on her favorite reprint: a 1960s Gothic Revival design of Northanger Abbey that presents the novel as a Gothic novel, full of terror and menace. She writes, "It's hilariously wrong and I think Jane Austen would have loved it!"

Jane Austen Cover to Cover is obviously a must for Janeites, and it will also be of interest to those interested in book design and popular book history. Although persnickety types might have preferred more in the way of bibliographical descriptions of size, binding material, etc. for each edition in addition the artistic details she offers, beginning and intermediate collectors will value Sullivan's book as a guide to an author so perennially in vogue that tracking her many editions would seem an impossible task.