This week in Popular Editions we are taking a look at one of our most popular authors at World of Rare Books, the magnificent Jane Austen. Austen’s novels have been a mainstay in the literary world since their first publications in the early 1800s and have grown in ever increasing popularity over the years. Though she only completed six novels, their impact and longevity have led to numerous translations and editions. It was her ability to simultaneously craft wonderfully engaging stories and social commentary that has new generations revisiting these works over two centuries after their creation.
Unlike certain authors who have perhaps one or two stand out collectable works, it is hard to narrow down the most popular of Austen’s books. The list of her completed works trip off the tongue easily helped by the myriad of radio, television and film adaptations which continue to this day. Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, all of these are instantly recognisable titles but it is probably Pride and Prejudice which consistently tops reader’s charts.
For serious collectors first editions are the most desired, but, due to the way they were initially published in such limited numbers, these have become very rare indeed. So what if these rare first editions are out of your reach?
One of the more iconic editions of Austen’s work is the 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice published by George Allen. This edition illustrated by Hugh Thompson in his typically jaunty, line work style captures both the beauty and humour within. What really sets the edition apart, however, is Thompson’s elaborate peacock cover design adorning the book in ornate gilt. It’s easy to see why this eye-catching example has become such a favourite with collectors.
Since the posthumous release of both Northanger Abbey, despite it being her first novel completed for publication and Persuasion, there have been numerous publications of her complete novels. One of our favourites is the Clarendon Press collection first published in 1923. This set consists of six novels in a five-volume set illustrated, not with any specifically commissioned illustrations, but with plates from a variety of sources detailing the costumes, carriages and settings of the novels giving the reader a better sense of Austen’s world.
Slightly earlier in 1894 J.M. Dent and Company released the novels of Jane Austen in a ten-volume set. The two volumes of Pride and Prejudice each contained three plates by William C. Cooke, charmingly illustrating the trials and tribulations of Elizabeth Bennett.
Some of the more affordable, and somewhat more recent, editions worth looking at to start your collection are the Folio Society editions. The Folio Society released Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility all individually in the 1950s and later as a 3 volume set. As is standard with Folio releases they are lovingly presented and are wonderfully illustrated with woodcuts by Joan Hassall. Due to their popularity, these works have been reprinted several times over the years. Most recently Folio has published a beautiful collection of Austen’s complete novels with all newly commissioned artwork from award-winning illustrations.
Though we have seen many interesting and rare editions of Austen’s work pass through World of Rare books one of the more unique items that we have found rather recently is Plan of a Novel, According to Hints from Various Quarters. This work came about through Austen’s meeting of the Reverend James Clarke who shared with her his thoughts and ideas for her fiction. Edited by R.W. Chapman this 1926 publication from Clarendon Press contains facsimiles of the original manuscript written in Austen’s hand with annotations about real life friends and acquaintances.
As is usual for such a well-regarded author there are many potential places to start building your collection whether it be trying to source those rare, early editions or trying to complete uniform sets. What is certain is that, regardless of edition, the witty intellect Austen used to breathe life into her cast of enigmatic characters will always leap from the page and no doubt goes on to entertain generations for centuries to come.