I was a senior in college when with awe I held a first edition of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake signed by the author. Some of the pages were still joined to adjacent ones—known as “unopened”—a telltale sign of a book never having been read through. That unread state seemed sad to me, a sign of neglect. But I soon learned that the copy was all the more valuable for remaining intact and unmarred. Book collecting, in that introductory moment, seemed like an activity divorced from reading.
This changed when, in graduate school, I read the scene in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando where the title character finds “a brownish stain” on the velvet prayer book that was once “held by Mary Queen of Scots on the scaffold” and discovers inside “a lock of hair and a crumb of pastry,” to which she adds “a flake of tobacco” while reverently reading and smoking. Woolf evidently delighted in used books as intellectual territories marked by the readers who passed through them.
I eventually became an English professor, specializing in Jane Austen and her earliest readers. For more than a decade I collected her hard-lived, bargain reprints, the versions of her stories that targeted the working classes in the 19th and 20th centuries and did the heavy lifting of placing her in the canon. Most of these mercurial Janes go unrecorded by bibliographers and uncollected by libraries. Some bear ownership signatures, marginalia, school prize labels, or the occasional ticket stub or grocery list used as a bookmark.
In 2019, my passion for these scrappy copies and their readers turned into its own project about reception history: The Lost Books of Jane Austen (Johns Hopkins).
Pride and Prejudice.
London, Glasgow, and New York: George Routledge and Sons, ca. 1890.
Reprinted from old stereotype plates, this inexpensive gift edition of Jane Austen’s novel boasts a striking series binding of red cloth with a Chinoiserie design. The late-Victorian fashion for dressing English classics in Asian costume was surprisingly popular but (thankfully) of short duration. In popular series like this, Austen’s novels keep company with Robinson Crusoe and Ben Hur.
London, New York, and Melbourne: Ward, Lock & Bowden, Limited, ca. 1893-7.
Pretty enough on the outside, this lackluster reprint on cheap paper has the cheek to call itself a “NEW EDITION” on the title page although it was printed in the 1890s from worn stereotype plates that, starting in 1833, had been worked hard for over half a century by at least three earlier publishers to churn out identical copies of Jane Austen packaged in different binding styles.
Jane Austen. Hotel Taft’s gift edition of Pride and Prejudice, ca. 1926-1930.
Built in 1926, the Hotel Taft was a premier tourist hotel with nearly 2,000 rooms in hallmark décor of orange-and-black. Think of this book as a cross between a souvenir ashtray and a Gideon Bible, with telltale stains suggesting this copy doubled irreverently as a coaster! The regifting of books was common during the Great Depression and this copy is inscribed on the inside cover “From Dave to Zelma,” with a December 1931 date.
La abadía de Northanger.
Barcelona: Bruguera, 1945.
This Spanish pulp paperback of Austen’s Northanger Abbey appears at first glance to appropriate the “wrong” movie still for a cover image when it offers Olivier-as-Heathcliff from the popular film Wuthering Heights (1939). This choice may be a conscious marketing tactic rather than a gaffe. With no movie of Northanger to pilfer, the Spanish publisher neatly manages to invoke the novel’s Gothic elements by eliding Austen and Brontë.
Orgullo y prejuicio.
Barcelona: Ediciones Reguera, 1946.
To the extent that World War II allowed, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film of Pride and Prejudice (1940), starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, was a big hit in Europe. Many cheap European paperbacks of this decade gesture to the film with cover art. Here Garson graces a Spanish example that retailed for 6 pesetas and packaged Austen as an escapist romance, or “la novela rosa.”
Translated by Costa Clavell. Orgullo y prejuicio.
Barcelona: Mundilibros, 1973.
Sometimes bad cover art tips over into great. The jacket illustration by Maria Paz Garcia-Borron for this Spanish translation of Pride and Prejudice was never intended as a sincere representation of Lizzie Bennet, or even Lydia. Instead, consumers in 1973 would have recognized the pouty blond bombshell Brigitte Bardot as the book’s celebrity lure.