For today’s audience, visualising Jane Austen is easy. In numerous recent TV and film dramatisations, the Regency era is communicated through a parade of empire line gowns, sedate formal dances and serene stately homes. So settled are we, in fact, on this familiar interpretation of Austen novels today, that it is easy to discount the fact that Austen has been imagined very differently in the past. The earliest film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1940, for example, was set in the Victorian period, in order that it might be marketed in the same vein as the wildly popular Gone with the Wind, which had appeared the previous year. It thus featured a cast of female characters in enormous Scarlett O’Hara style dresses and bonnets. To the first audiences of Austen on screen, the novels were presented as 19th century romances, rather than the acerbic social commentaries of the previous century which appear on the page, and the endurance of this conception of Austen in the popular collective consciousness still holds a certain amount of power.
MGM Studios [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This was not the first time, however, that Austen had been misrepresented to make her more marketable. Henry James, in 1905, can be found deploring the way in which
the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines … found their ‘dear,’ our dear, everybody’s dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose, so amenable to pretty reproduction in every variety of what is called tasteful, and in what seemingly proves to be saleable form.
From the first illustrated editions, which began to appear in the 1830’s, the content of the novels was being subjected to subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) manipulation to suit what the publishers perceived as palatable to the audience’s tastes at the time.
Just as in TV, film and stage adaptations, the illustrations of a novel have the power to profoundly influence the audience’s perception and draw out different aspects; the domestic or the pastoral, the political or social, the familial or the romantic. They can also alter factors such as the perceived age range of the audience for the novels by accentuating either scenes of gothic melodrama or the lighter, cosier elements of the narratives. When considering historical illustrations of Austen’s books, we must keep in mind that illustrators’ choices could have been influenced by a number of factors we may never be able to puzzle out; a publishers’ brief, market considerations, current trends or fashions etc. The illustrators themselves may not even have read the novels cover to cover.
Austen’s novels did not appear in illustrated form until the early 19th century. Illustrated novels were expensive to produce, and even works celebrated from the time of publication (which Austen’s were not) were often not illustrated until later editions. The copyrights to all of Austen’s six major novels were bought in 1832 by publisher Richard Bentley, fifteen years after Austen’s death. It was Bentley whose publication of each in turn as part of his Standard Novels series cemented their place in the literary canon. The illustrations for these editions – each featured a steel-engraved frontispiece and a title page vignette – were the first visualisations of Austen to be seen by a wide audience, and thus impacted greatly upon the reception of her works in the cultural consciousness.
First Bentley Edition of Sense and Sensibility, with illustrated frontispiece after Ferdinand Pickering
This first interpreter of Austen was Ferdinand Pickering, illustrator of previous Bentley publications of the Gothic, romantic and domestic persuasion. Perhaps feeling most comfortable in this territory, Pickering duly provided illustrations for Austen’s novels which conformed to the mould of standard Victorian pot-boilers. Ignoring the Regency fashions that would be accurate to the setting of the novels, Pickering depicts female characters as wasp-waisted and voluminous-skirted, stepping with implausibly tiny feet through a series of scenes either domestically or dramatically preoccupied: in short, images familiar to readers from the post-gothic melodramas popular in the 1830s. Instances of surprise or strife are emphasised, almost to the extent of stretching the actual content of a scene to breaking point while leaving Austen’s native humour and mitigating satire unillustrated. For example, the image chosen for the frontispiece of Northanger Abbey depicts Henry Tilney on discovering Catherine Morland snooping in his late mother’s off-limits chambers. Catherine clasps her hands together beseechingly and the whole scene is bathed in menacing shadows. It is unclear, at a glance, whether Tilney is the villain of the piece rather than its hero. Historian and critic Thomas Babbington-Macaulay wrote to a friend of the Bentley edition: ‘Get a sight of the Book next time you go to a circulating library at Liverpool; and tell me whether Henry Tilney be not the most offensive Varmint man that ever you saw’. In reality, the scene, within the wider context of Austen’s mock-gothic novel, is intended as a send-up of exactly the kind of sinister moment Pickering has ultimately represented. The illustration, it seems, has rather missed the joke.
Pickering’s illustrations: Frontispiece to Northanger Abbey and title page vignette to Sense & Sensibility
Similarly misleadingly, the title-page vignette selected for Sense & Sensibility depicts an exaggeratedly gothic version of Marianne’s illness. The illustration, showing Marianne as a ghostly vision in frilled nightclothes being almost physically restrained by Elinor, would look more at home in Wuthering Heights, or another more gothically-disposed novel of the 19th century. While technically true to the novel, the choice of this scene (one of comparatively unrepresentative peril and drama in the larger context of the narrative) seems a strange introduction.
Indeed, Pickering’s tendency both to draw out and amplify gothic themes, and to place his characters in fashions contemporary to the 1830s, situated Austen’s novels so firmly in the context of the 19th century that she was often grouped with other Victorian novelists such as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot in later literary discussion. This misappropriation was compounded by the fact that Bentley’s Standard Novels series of Austen’s work was reissued with Pickering’s illustrations until 1886. As it would have been through Bentley’s editions that many readers first approached Austen, her novels were effectively frozen in time as artefacts of early Victorian literature. When, in the mid-nineteenth century, other publishers issued illustrated editions of Austen’s work as the copyright on each novel expired, Pickering’s designs became the benchmark. Several illustrators chose to perpetuate the early Victorian fashions and setting. The illustrations for the 1851 Routledge edition of Pride and Prejudice by Sir John Gilbert, for example, have been criticised as rather lacklustre imitations of Pickering’s work, retaining the determinedly Victorian setting while shedding the sensationalist subjects. The resulting illustrations depict neat and demure heroines engaged in generic and passive activities, and are remarkable largely only for their lack of interest. Chapman & Hall’s 1870 ‘Yellowback’ edition also chooses Victorian dress for its characters but is, in contrast, notable for its bizarre choice of scene to illustrate; Lydia (we presume) is depicted in lurid colour at a soldiers’ encampment at Brighton, conversing with three officers, despite the fact that Austen never wrote this scene. Subsequent American editions of the novels, presumably taking their cue from the British, continued to illustrate characters in Victorian dress into the late nineteenth century.
Chapman & Hall ‘Yellowback’ edition of Pride & Prejudice, 1870
The first illustrations to make an attempt at period-appropriate representation were those created by William Cubitt Cooke for J. M. Dent & Company’s ten volume edition of Austen’s novels in 1892. Cooke produced thirty illustrations for Dent which made an attempt at representing Regency dress and furnishings, providing readers with a more accurate visualisation of the books as they actually appeared on the page, rather than a more superficial rendering which kept an eye firmly on marketability.
The edition, however, which would set the standard for Austen illustration was George Allen’s 1894 ‘Peacock’ Pride and Prejudice, illustrated by Hugh Thomson. So called because of the lavish peacock motif that appeared on the endpapers, title page and gilt-embossed cover, it featured over 160 illustrations and decorations. Its landmark status in the publishing history of Austen, as well as its attractiveness, ensure its continued collectability, with copies usually fetching prices in the low thousands. Thomson’s Austen was also the first to attempt to inject humour into illustrations of the novels. Whimsical headpieces, often not depicting scenes directly described by Austen but attempting to capture the light and ironical tone off the novels, appear at the head of each chapter. For example, the five Bennet daughters are shown in one instance seated, flanked on the left by a fussing Mrs Bennet and on the right by the odious would-be suitor Mr Collins, who inspects them. A small sign above the head of the middle sister (presumably Jane) reads ‘not for sale’. Thomson went on to illustrate the five other Austen novels after his defection from George Allen to Macmillan. When it came, however, to Mcmillan’s own edition of Pride and Prejudice, they were in something of a bind, as Thomson’s earlier illustrations for the novel belonged to George Allen. They therefore engaged another illustrator, Charles Brock, for the project.
the ‘Peacock’ Pride and Prejudice, illustrated by Hugh Thomson
Charles Brock and his brother Matthew must also be credited with shaping the visual trend of Austen, producing over two hundred illustrations across several editions and formats. Chief amongst their innovations was the use of coloured plates, as in the ten volume Austen edition of 1898 produced by J. M. Dent. Following the trend of historical accuracy that emerged in the 1890s, the Brocks’ illustrations depict characters in period costume inhabiting highly detailed scenes. The Brock brothers reputedly collected period furniture and would have their friends model for scenes in their Cambridge studio. Brock’s illustrations also capture some of Austen’s characteristically arch humour in the scenes and captions chosen. A plate for Emma, for example, shows the obnoxious Mrs Elton in a rather gaudy dress asking “How do you like my gown?”
An illustration of Lydia for Pride & Prejudice by C. E. Brock
Though the popularity of illustrated editions of Austen continued into the 20th century, ensuring repeated illustrated interpretations, it was film adaptations that increasingly began to shape popular notions of how Austen’s novels looked. The first on-screen adaptation of Pride & Prejudice in 1940 starred Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson and was marketed heavily to theatre-goers and was seen by millions. As mentioned above, it took advantage of the recent success of other book-to-screen adaptations, opting for lavish and exaggerated Victorian costumes and sets for maximum visual titillation. As with the illustrated editions, the prevailing trends of the day dictated the visual presentation of Austen. Almost from the advent of her popularity, Austen has been big business, and marketability continues to be the main factor affecting our conception of how the novels are visualised.
Illustrated Jane Austen novels:
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