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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Austen first impressions

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.)

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