Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2014 02:00PM

Margaret C. Sullivan*, known for the past decade as the editrix of AustenBlog, picked her first Jane Austen paperback off a drugstore’s book rack because the cover caught her eye.

It’s fitting, then, that Sullivan’s hugely entertaining new book, Jane Austen Cover to Cover, should survey two centuries of Austen book covers. From a now-valuable Mansfield Park first edition in simple cardboard bindings to a hilariously wrong-headed 1965 paperback of Northanger Abbey (“The terror of Northanger Abbey had no name, no shape – yet it menaced Catherine Morland in the dead of night!”), these pages are a browsable bounty for any Janeite.

Sullivan contributes short, often witty descriptions of the covers she includes, as well as informative sidebars on such matters as Regency-era book production and period fashion. Appropriate Austen quotes are sprinkled throughout.

Austen is the original crossover artist–revered by scholars, adored in Hollywood, enjoyed by readers of every age, nationality and esthetic or political persuasion–and the book covers collected here reflect the range of responses to her work.

Sullivan gives us Austen as cheesy romance novelist (brooding heroes, swooning heroines, pulpy cover blurbs), Austen as elegant epitome of British heritage (stately homes, decorous oil portraits, iconic locations), and Austen as gum-cracking pop diva (Marvel Comics, movie tie-ins, bloodied zombie victim).

Gorgeously minimalist or arrestingly quirky modern editions rub shoulders with mid-century camp, like the bearded Captain Wentworth who, as Sullivan trenchantly notes, “looks like he fell off an Old Spice bottle.”

On one cover, a staid Fanny Price stand-in plies her needle; on another, a disembodied male hand caresses the jawline of a faceless young woman, illustrating an Emma that seems to have wandered in from the Teen Romance section. (“Perhaps it intends to depict the scene wherein Mr. Perry, the apothecary, checks Harriet Smith’s glands when she is home sick with a cold?” Sullivan speculates.)

All in all, it’s enough to light an acquisitive fire in the heart of even a Janeite with limited shelf space. Surely I could find room for that 2000 Modern Library edition, the one with Elizabeth Bennet in a red dress. . .

* Full disclosure: I interviewed Sullivan for Among the Janeites, I’ve enjoyed socializing with her at JASNA events since then, and AustenBlog gave my book an extremely generous review. (Oh, all right, since you insist: here’s the link.)

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 6 2014 01:00PM

The other day, I ran across this attractive Austen-themed craft idea, and it got me thinking about that silhouette.

Now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, it pops up everywhere as a representation of Jane Austen, whose image is famously hard to pin down. (The Jane Austen Society of North America summarizes the issue here, and I’ve written about it here and here.)

Why do we think this silhouette represents Jane Austen? According to Princeton scholar Claudia L. Johnson’s excellent Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, it was “found in 1944 pasted into the second edition of Mansfield Park” and labeled “L’aimable Jane.” The pioneering Austen editor R.W. Chapman thought that closed the case: “Who would insert, in a copy of Mansfield Park, a portrait of any other Jane than its author?”

With apologies to the magisterial Chapman, that’s about as lame an argument as can be imagined. Although the NPG dates the silhouette to circa 1810-15 – early enough to be an accurate representation of Austen -- we have no idea where it came from or when it was pasted into the book. We don’t know who did the pasting or why s/he wrote in French.

Might it have been a Francophone Austen friend fashioning an impromptu author portrait out of a taken-from-life image? Absolutely.

Might it also have been a moony French teenager who found the silhouette at a flea market decades later and decided it looked exactly like her mental image of the author? Could be. No way of telling.

AustenBlog’s Margaret Sullivan, who shares my skepticism about the provenance and accuracy of the image, argues that “the silhouette is charming and we have no problem with it being a symbolic representation of the youthful Jane Austen.” Fair enough. Just so long as we remember that we don’t really know who’s in the picture.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 4 2013 05:31PM

Maggie Sullivan's AustenBlog, though relatively quiet over the past year or so, has been a go-to source for news about Jane Austen and pop culture since 2004. When I first began thinking about writing a book on Jane Austen fans, I was partly inspired by Sullivan's incisive critique of Claire Harman's Jane's Fame, which, the review noted, treated contemporary Austen fandom in little depth.

"It would have been really interesting to have One Of Us, a Janeite who is “not afraid to be seen wallowing” as Ms. Harman put it, write an overview of the State of the Fandom, even a constructively critical one," Sullivan wrote. I quoted that line in my book proposal.

So it's very satisfying to report that AustenBlog finds Among the Janeites to be "the most thoroughly enjoyable Austen-related book we’ve read in some time." I've been reading AustenBlog daily for years now, and this accolade means a lot to me.

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