Book covers may be especially important when it comes to the classics. After all, many of us have a general sense of, if not a thorough familiarity with, the contents within. Perhaps more than anything else, these covers show what matters to prospective buyers. Two centuries of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” are particularly revealing about the novel’s broad and sustained popular reach. (A slide show of a dozen different covers for the novel can be found here.) Reprintings not only chart the public reception of a writer who, next to Shakespeare, may be the most popular in the English language; their wide-ranging cover art also provides snapshots of both this classic novel and the modern book.
In the 19th century, a book could be purchased in assorted colors of cloth bindings, with or without gold stamping, beveled boards or gilt edges. Today, publishers desperate to retain printed-book readers are reviving gift editions of the Victorian era, when titles appeared in varied formats and at different prices.
Although “Pride and Prejudice” continues to circulate in the somber black associated with Penguin Classics, especially in classrooms, the novel has recently been reissued in a dazzling array of colorful outfits. In 2009, Penguin began offering “Pride and Prejudice” in a designer-cloth hardback, which decorative retailers like Anthropologie sold as home décor. That same text also appeared in a “couture inspired” jacket, complete with deckle edges and French flaps to use as bookmarks. And it is now available in bright scarlet leatherette, with a decorative A on the cover, in a hat tip to “traditional” type design. This is just a small sampling of the many refashioned editions of the novel by different publishers over the last 200 years.