Beautiful Books: Picturing Jane Austen, Part One

Posted June 13, 2014 by Lory in design / 8 Comments

fine Austen editions

In my book collecting this year, I went a little nuts. I already owned Jane Austen’s Emma in the most recent Folio Society edition (illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat), but a few months ago the FS published a new edition of Pride and Prejudice with fabulous illustrations by Elena and Anna Balbusso and I just had to have it. Now I would have two oddly assorted Austens on my shelf. What if I could find completely different illustrated editions of each of Austen’s other four novels, breaking the mold of the traditional uniform set? Would the result be pleasingly varied, or just weird?

I had great fun seeking out these different editions, and except for my first two splurges, none of them set me back more than $20. Here follows my take on each book’s binding, typography, and illustrations. I didn’t find any of them completely successful across the board, but there is something that I love about each one, so I would call the project a success.

Going into detail about all six books was making my post too long, so I’ve split it into three parts. Today, I’ll be considering the 2013 Folio Society edition of Pride and Prejudice, and the 1957 Heritage Press edition of Sense and Sensibility.

First up is my new baby, Pride and Prejudice. With a swashy binding design and glittery gold background (hard to capture with my camera — take my word for it, it’s GOLD) this is a book that’s aiming to make a statement. It’s a bit too flashy for me, and I don’t think it suits the book; with all his wealth, Darcy is not one to spend it in an ostentatious way, and Elizabeth is not a princess swanning around in foamy lace and diamond tiaras. I think that a plain matte color would have been more appropriate, and fewer swashes would not hurt.

 

Austen Balbusso

 

Fortunately, this flashiness does not extend to the book’s interior. The typography has nothing outstanding about it, but is quiet and respectable, allowing the text to speak without distraction. The eight full-page, full-color illustrations, printed on textured paper, are the main attraction. I wrote last month about the Balbusso sisters and their work, and what I said then definitely applies here: “The Balbusso sisters bring a bold, stylized approach to the problem of illustrating fiction, which is the question of how to bring out both the visual and the psychological aspects of the story, the outer and the inner.” Figures are carefully positioned for maximum dramatic effect, almost like a staged tableau, while contrasting natural forms and visible brushwork lend life and movement. The Balbussos’ formal sense of composition and careful use of color lead the eye through the image to “read” the narrative embedded within.

 

Folio Pride and Prejudice

 

Through each page conceived as a whole, we see Elizabeth’s discomfort when dancing with Darcy, her archness when playing the pianoforte in his hearing, her consternation on reading his letter. It’s a masterful visualization of a book that has been interpreted in so many ways by so many artists — on page, stage, and screen — that it might seem impossible to look at it afresh. Yet the Balbussos succeed, and brilliantly.

A quite different and very unusual approach was taken by Helen Sewell with her illustrations for the 1957 Heritage Press edition of Sense and Sensibility. She was the only Austen illustrator I found who seriously departed from a naturalistic portrayal, and who did not try to make her subjects look pretty. I find this highly appropriate for Austen, who, however much we may think of her as a creator of colorful costume dramas, was actually writing about some of the uglier sides of human nature, and — unlike her imitators — spent very little time describing what anybody was wearing.

 

 

 

Sewell’s stark, dramatic images, printed in somber dark green ink, are not comforting eye candy. They can be strange and startling, and some readers may dislike them for that reason. I found them a interesting attempt at portraying what few artists have dared to approach: the disquieting truths and uncomfortable emotions that lurk within Austen’s novels. After all, Sense and Sensibility contains some thoroughly unlikeable characters, and its central struggle between passion and prudence is not quite satisfactorily resolved. Sewell’s primitive, monumental figures lend both gravity and a quirky kind of humor to this edition, suitable for what Stella Gibbons in her introduction calls “a tragi-comedy.”

 

Austen Sense Heritage Press

 

Sense and Sensibility is also outstanding for its typography. The classic Baskerville typeface was chosen for the text, while a engraving-style calligraphic display font elegantly evokes the period. After the first chapter with its monumental drop capital, chapter headings are pleasingly inset just the right amount, with perfectly proportioned small caps for the first few words. Traditional design elements are infused with a clean, modern sensibility, an excellent foil for the illustrations. These are usually incorporated into the text in various ways rather than being segregated on their own separate pages — as with the top spread above, which portrays Edward’s musings about his choice of a profession (or rather lack of one) in graphic form directly below the appropriate text.

Pride and Prejudice also uses Baskerville for its text, an unexceptionable choice, but has boringly centered chapter headings and page numbers, which are enlivened only by some generic swashes (again). It’s a less sophisticated, less subtle design. Although Austen’s heroines are always striving for balance, it’s not an easy path, and does not involve equally weighted choices; Sense and Sensibility‘s asymmetrical, slightly off-kilter page layout reminds us of this, without saying a word.

 

Austen Heritage Folio
Sense vs. Pride: Pleasingly asymmetrical vs. boringly centered.

 

The binding design for Sense and Sensibility could have been more imaginative; I would love to have seen an artistic design rather than a drab printed paper that seems to have nothing to do with the period or the book. However, I love the typography of the spine, which is again simple, elegant, and perfectly proportioned. I was very happy to add this fine book to my library.

I hope you’ll join me again for more in this series. Future posts will cover Northanger Abbey (Limited Editions Club, 1971), Mansfield Park (Folio, 1975/1991), Persuasion (Heritage Press, 1977), and Emma (Folio, 2007).

Summary of book details:

Pride and Prejudice
Published by the Folio Society, London, 2013
Introduction by Sebastian Faulks
Illustrations by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Set in Baskerville with Trajan display
9.5 x 6.25 inches, 352 pages
Printed on Abbey Wove paper and bound in buckram stamped with a design by the artists

Folio Society page
More images on the Ispot

 

***

Sense and Sensibility
Published by the Heritage Press, New York, 1957
Introduction by Stella Gibbons
Illustrations by Helen Sewell
Set in Baskerville, display type unknown
9.5 x 6.5 inches, 324 pages
Paper unknown; bound in cloth with printed paper sides

Review on AustenOnly

 

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8 responses to “Beautiful Books: Picturing Jane Austen, Part One

  1. What great copies! You are making me entirely too discontent with my already to-large collection of J.A. books (if there is such a thing).

  2. Great post! I've held off on the Folio Society P&P, but now I'm really tempted. 🙂 And I'm always interested in Heritage Press — I have a beautiful complete set of Dickens in that edition. Makes great eye candy! 🙂

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