Q&A: Margaret C. Sullivan, the Author of Jane Austen Cover to Cover on Austen’s work and legacy

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Margaret C. Sullivan

LJ: To begin, could you tell me a bit about how this book came about?
MS: I wish I could say it was my own brilliant idea, but it was actually Jason Rekulak, Quirk Books’s publisher, who thought of it. In 2013, Jason had the idea for a book of cover images from all of Jane Austen’s novels over two centuries and contacted me to find out if I would be interested in writing it. Because of the celebrations around the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, I had been asked to write and speak about the history of the publication of the novel, and I really enjoyed the research. I loved the idea of the book and was pleased about the opportunity to continue my research into the subject, and I had been writing about beautiful covers of Austen novels—and making fun of silly ones—on my blog for years. It all came together really well.

Reading through, for all the amazing (and some amazingly ridiculous!) covers, what’s always apparent is Austen’s legacy. What do you think it is about Austen and her work that resonates so with readers?
janeaustencovertocover112114The first of her novels I read was Emma, and I was in my late 20s. I had a very hazy idea of Austen’s period in history at that point, and I remember thinking while I was reading the novel that maybe she was writing sometime in the 1930s about an earlier period. (I even remember the scene I was reading—it was when Miss Bates arrives at the ball and talks for two pages without stopping. I loved it!) I flipped to the little biographical blurb in the front of the book and was astonished to learn Austen had died in 1817. The book felt so modern in style and content. I was more familiar with the Brontës and other Victorian authors, so I found the comedy and light style surprising and really enjoyable. I’ve never felt Austen’s work was chained to its time period in essence. In details it certainly is, but while the setting of her novels was in the Georgian/Regency period, at its core she was writing about people and their behavior, and that doesn’t change much, I think! Her characters, the heroes and heroines and the minor characters, are delightful and universally recognizable, and so are her plots. Just think how many of them have been turned into modern-set films and books, and they often work really well.

Covering 200 Years

The book is visually beautiful and also well researched. What is the most interesting thing you learned while writing it?
I really loved learning about Austen as a professional author. For so many years there was the theme about the anonymous spinster, retired in the country, scribbling her books. Janeites who have read a biography or two generally know that’s not true, but I didn’t realize the extent of her involvement in the business end of publishing. In some aspects she had to work through her father or brother as an agent because ladies were not supposed to be involved in such mercenary activities, but it’s obvious from her letters that she was directly involved in all the decisions about her books and that like many authors she liked to complain about her publishers!
Which cover is your favorite?
If we are talking about the beautiful covers, I have to go with the Penguin Threads edition of Emma. The cover image is an embroidered piece of a bonneted young lady done mostly in satin stitch. I love to do needlework myself, so I was enchanted by the art. It is a softcover, but the areas where there is stitching are raised so you really get the experience of the piece. And when you open the cover, the back of the front cover is the back of the stitching. It’s really beautiful and different. I especially loved it because Austen was a proficient embroiderer, especially in satin stitch. I think she would have loved the cover.
However, if we are talking about the funny covers, what I call the “Inadvertently Gothic Northanger Abbey” is my hands-down favorite. (I think my friend Heather Laurence, who owns that edition, was the first person who knew about the book because I wanted to make sure I could get a scan of that cover!) Northanger Abbey is a parody of the Gothic novels that were popular in Austen’s time, in particular Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, and also a parody of the young ladies of that era who took those melodramatic novels a little too seriously. Catherine Morland, the heroine, would love to think herself the heroine of a Gothic novel, but ordinary life would always interfere; no doubt she would appreciate knowing that one cover artist, at least, fulfilled her wish to be a damsel in distress!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m still amazed when I think about the evolution of publishing from Austen’s day until today. In her lifetime, the books were written in longhand, the type was manually composed letter by letter, the paper was handmade, and the binding was done by hand. Over two centuries we see evolution not only in the design, though that is certainly there, but in the technology used to produce the books—continued improvements in the production of paper and automation of the printing process, and finally at the end we arrive at ebooks. And yet the stories between the different covers, whether printed on handmade cotton rag paper or displayed in pixels, never change.

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Amanda Mastrull About Amanda Mastrull

Amanda Mastrull (amastrull@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Editor at Library Journal.