This month marks the release of Margaret C. Sullivan’s book exploring the history of Jane Austen covers in print, Jane Austen Cover to Cover (Quirk Books). While the book showcases Sullivan’s skills as a publishing-history sleuth, we already knew the author for her witty Austen blogging and fan fiction. So naturally, we were thrilled at the chance to have her come up with some humorous “outtakes” from her cover collection. She obliged with five of the most absurd covers found in the book, paired with added “scenes that Jane Austen never wrote.” — Sarah Seltzer
The publication history of Jane Austen’s novels stretches over 200 years, and the evolution of the covers used across the years includes a wide variety of styles, which reflect the time period and location of the publisher, the publisher’s purpose, and the whims of individual artists and designers. There are beautiful covers, serviceable covers, strange covers, misspelled covers, ugly covers, and downright hilariously wrong covers. Some of them even inspired me to imagine scenes from the novels that Jane Austen never actually wrote.
Pride and Prejudice, Signet Classics, 1980 (p. 64)
Signet Classics are reliable editions beloved of readers young and old, as they are inexpensive and pocket-sized. The cover images have changed over the years, and this 1980s edition uses a painting of two women dressed in mid-Victorian fashions, rather than the lighter, more revealing fashions of Austen’s time, to represent Elizabeth and Jane Bennet. What might they have to say about it?
“We seem to have stumbled into a Brontë novel again.”
“Oh, dear. I have acquired a bustle. I do not like it, Lizzy.”
“It does not suit your beauty, my dear Jane; neither do these gowns, so dark and… and… ample.”
“Yes, they do cover us rather better than our own clothes.”
“No wonder the Miss Brontës’ novels are such depressing things. They must have been influenced by their clothing.”
“Well, that parsonage was so damp and unhealthy, I dare say they were warmer dressed this way than they would have been in muslin.”
“Trust your kind heart to reason so! But… Jane?”
“I feel… a consumption …coming on.” (Coughs.)
“Oh, Lizzy, do be serious!”
Persuasion, Signet Classics, 2008 (p. 116)
Signet refreshes its covers every so often, and in 2008 republished Austen’s books with bright, cheery cover designs and new afterwords by popular authors. No more paintings, period-appropriate or not; the cover images are now impressionistic little sketches, though one must wonder what a rowboat has to do with the plot of Persuasion, as the hero, Captain Wentworth, is an officer in the mighty Napoleonic-era Royal Navy.
“It appears to be a rowboat, Admiral Croft.”
“Aye, but it’s your very own rowboat, Frederick.”
“Not exactly what I thought of for my first command.”
“Lucky fellow to get anything so soon, with no more interest than yours.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“And you shall be the captain of this vessel… Captain Wentworth.”
“That does sound well. She’ll be the making of me, or I’ll go to the bottom with her!”
“That’s the spirit!”
“I shall call her… ASP.”
“Don’t get carried away, son. It remains a rowboat.”
Northanger Abbey, Magnum Easy Eye, 1968 (p. 57)
This cover turns Austen’s lighthearted parody of the Gothic novels popular in her time into a real Gothic romance, locating (presumably) the hero and heroine, Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland, in the dungeons of the eponymous abbey and in an image spotlighting all the creepier aspects of traditional Gothic romances. Catherine, who had a great enthusiasm for the Gothic melodramas of Austen’s time, probably would have liked that!
“Mr. Tilney? Where have you brought me?”
“We are in the dungeon of Northanger Abbey, Miss Morland.”
“The dungeon! Indeed, that is just the sort of place I wished to see.”
“I know; that is why I brought you here.”
“How very kind, to be sure! In a book, a young lady brought to such a place might expect the most alarming things to happen to her.”
“Fortunately, we are not in that sort of book. I am an English gentleman and a clergyman. No matter how pretty you look in your yellow gown, I assure you that your virtue is safe with me.”
“Is something wrong, Miss Morland?”
“Well, it is just that — I think I should like it if my virtue were a little less — safe.”
“Would you, indeed? I shall remember that for the future; but alas! we have about half the book still to traverse, so that sort of thing must wait a bit.”
“Very well. You will not forget?”
“That, my dear Miss Morland, is quite unlikely.”
Pride and Prejudice, Middleton Classics, 2009 (p. 132)
This is a small-press, ebook-only edition of Pride and Prejudice, and while the Thomas Gainsborough paintings make a pretty cover, they were painted some 30 years before the publication of Austen’s novel; besides, I find Mr. Darcy’s floating head to be a trifle… disconcerting.
“Miss Bennet, I have never been so bewitched by any woman as I am by you.”
“Really, Mr. Darcy, if you will persist in letting your disembodied head float around one, I wish you would choose another woman to follow. I dare say Miss Bingley would be pleased to oblige you.”
“I said I was bewitched.”
“That is hardly an excuse. Look at your expression. You are mooning over me like an adolescent.”
“I do not moon, madam.”
“And yet there is your head floating in the sky like the moon itself. It is most disconcerting.”
“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honor of expecting?”
“I am going inside now. Pray do not peek in my bedroom window like you did last night. It is a most ungentlemanly thing to do.”
Persuasion, Soho Press, 2011 (p. 128)
With the ease of digital publishing combined with the fact that Jane Austen’s novels are in the public domain, a few independent publishers have produced new editions that use vaguely female-oriented, romantic-appearing clip art to create cover images that reflect a more modern sensibility. This cover of this Soho Press edition of Persuasion is somewhat reminiscent of the Twilight novels, which makes one imagine a very different ending for Austen’s most romantic novel.
“Yes, Frederick dear?”
“You are looking a trifle… pale.”
“I am always a little pale in winter. I shall use some Gowland’s lotion.”
“And your lips are very red. Are you sure you are not feverish?”
“I am quite sure. I have a rose for you, my love.”
“May I have a kiss in thanks for it?”
“Oh, yes, of course… oh, a kiss on my neck, how delightful …oh, and a nip with your teeth, you saucy minx… OUCH! … Anne, what are you… is that my blood?… oh my… I feel faint…”
It was said among the Royal Navy that after his marriage, Captain Wentworth did his best fighting after dark, with his lady always at his side; though the rate of desertions and other mysterious disappearances of sailors on his ships perplexed the Admiralty.