Falling for Jane Austen...again

Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Book Covers - Margaret C. Sullivan

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not the pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” – Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (the quote is included in the book)


This is a marvelous book, non-fiction of the best kind. It documents most known editions of 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 photos on every page made me smile. My heart pulsed with joy the entire time it took me to read this book. It entertained and amused, educated and enlightened. It filled me with longing to re-read all Austen’s novels. I’ll do it in 2015. I also want to own this book. The one I read was a library loan, but I’ll get one of my own soon. After several lackluster DNFs in a row, I needed this jolt of pure pleasure to remind myself why I love reading.


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 mid-20th century artists adhered to Regency style of dress and hair, contemporary for Austen, while others employed a more eclectic illustration mode: dresses a mix of Victorian and Regency fashions, hairstyles belonging to neither.

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 kinda 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 on them. She doesn’t pull her punches. I frequently laughed aloud as I read all night and couldn’t close the book.

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 novels?

Sullivan poked fun at some of the more ridiculous modern covers but she highlighted outstanding ones too. She also dedicated a part of her book to Austen’s sidelines: movies and manga, zombie twists, abridged versions, and translations.

The language of the texts 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 crucified 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 were misspelled. I guess the proofreaders didn’t check art credits. They are printed vertically after all.

Despite this one insignificant glitch, it was a glorious book. Recommended to everyone.


My deepest gratitude goes to Reflections, who introduced me to this book. Her review inspired me to order my library copy. Thank you, Jenny.