Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is part of a special group of novels that maintain the rare quality of being timeless. It remains relevant despite its period-specific elements such as distinctively Regency-era clothing, manners of speech, and locations. While these attributes may make it sound like Pride and Prejudice is married to its era, the amount of widely varied adaptations and reprints (some that work, and some that do not) is emblematic of the novel’s versatility and enduring legacy. Of course, these adaptations could not exist without the renewal of the original text, and Pride and Prejudice’s longevity is secured by the many reprints of the novel over the decades. Almost every edition of Pride and Prejudice has its own unique cover, one which serves the purpose of targeting a specific audience (whether it is teenage girls or literary scholars) and enticing them to read.
One such cover is featured on Brain Books’s edition of the novel, which was published in 2022. The choice by this edition of the novel’s cover to depict Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in their Regency-era fashion primes the reader to the novel’s themes surrounding class, thus enticing experienced classic literature enjoyers; this consideration of classic-minded readers is also evidenced by the lack of Austen’s biography on the cover. In addition, the back cover blurb’s focus on Elizabeth’s characteristics and breaking of traditional conventions attempts to draw in another audience of readers seeking strong female protagonists.
Featuring of Fashion
Other than the title of the book and author, which takes up a little less than half of the cover space, most of the cover’s area is decorated by an illustration of (presumably) Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. The art style is reminiscent of classic fashion sketches, with black linework washed over with watercolor. According to Cally Blackman’s 100 Years of Fashion Illustration, fashion illustrators “have the power to select or emphasize a particular feature; to prioritize figure over garment, or garment over figure; to translate a mood, an atmosphere, with humour or emotion” (7). While being fairly certain this cover was not created to advertise fashion, the same power Blackman attributes to fashion illustrators is also present in the artist of this cover. Compared to the character’s faces or surrounding environment, both Elizabeth’s dress and Mr. Darcy’s suit are detailed, featuring ruffles, buttons, and bows. The cover’s highlighting of fashion, specifically affluent Regency-era fashion, points to the novel’s themes surrounding class, something that anyone who enjoys reading classic literature would possibly pick up on.
Clothing as Class
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, characters are judged based on the appearance of their clothing, often because it is a direct signifier of social class. One of the most recognizable examples of this is when Elizabeth travels through the rain and mud to visit and check on her ill sister who is staying at the Bingley residence. Upon seeing her petticoat and gown soiled with mud, the Bingley sisters remark “I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild” and “I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office” (Austen, 24). Instead of admiring Elizabeth’s compassion for her sister and her determination to ease her with a visit, the upper-class Bingley sisters focus on Elizabeth’s attire, which is also a veiled swipe at Elizabeth’s lower-class status. She was forced to walk in the mud because the Bennet family could not afford multiple carriages or people to drive them, something that the rich Bingley family would not need to consider.
Further exploration of clothing as class is seen with how Mr. Collins prepares Elizabeth for her visit to the estate of Lady Catherine, an aristocrat. Mr. Collins makes sure to specify to Elizabeth that “Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us which becomes herself and her daughter” (Austen, 113) and that she “will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed” (Austen, 113). Clothing equating to class was almost universally understood in this time, especially by people involved in more upper-class activities and socialization, as evidenced by Mr. Collins choosing to mention that Elizabeth’s simple clothing will not cause Lady Catherine to look down upon her (even though we later find out this is very much not the case). In all, because of the theme’s prominence in the novel, a representation of it is illustrated on the cover of this edition. Thus, the depiction of Elizabeth and Darcy’s fashion plants the seeds of the themes of dress and class in the minds of people who are familiar with and enjoy reading (and most likely analyzing) classic literature
The featuring of Regency-specific fashion on this specific cover has a drawback though, in that it confines Pride and Prejudice to the era depicted by the cover art. Readers who are not interested in pieces from this era would be less inclined to read this version of the novel, and because the cover has already established Regency fashion as the canonical era of fashion in which the novel takes place, it becomes harder to apply the subsequent themes to other time periods (especially for first-time readers), thus limiting the timelessness of a book that has proven to be relevant and understood throughout history. On the other hand, this may also be an attempt to lure in readers looking specifically for classic literature from the Regency and other similar time periods.
Lack of Austen's Biography
Furthermore, this cover’s intention of appealing to readers of classic literature can be seen by the lack of biography for Jane Austen on the back cover or inside of the book. People familiar with classic literature would most likely not need a basic introduction to Jane Austen, as they are already familiar with her and her work. Most editions of classic novels such as this include a legacy-centric biography of the author to demonstrate the novel and author’s relevance and lasting impact. This is not absent from this edition due to lack of Austen’s importance, but rather because the intended audience would not find it necessary. The absence of Austen’s biography is probably the most readily apparent evidence that this edition of Pride and Prejudice was intended for an audience of classic literature enjoyers.
Elizabeth: A Strong Female Protagonist
On top of being marketed to classic literature buffs, this cover also seems to draw in people in search of a novel with a strong woman as a protagonist. When again looking at the front cover of the novel, Elizabeth’s dress is bright fuchsia, standing in contrast to the blue-gray walls behind her. On her right is Mr. Darcy, who conversely is blending into the background with a similarly blue-gray suit. Elizabeth’s dress immediately draws the reader’s eye due to its contrast with the background, alerting the reader that this story is about Elizabeth specifically as a character and protagonist, rather than about just her courtship with Mr. Darcy.
Moreover, the back cover’s blurb primarily describes Elizabeth’s personality and her breaking of typical conventions by being strong-willed, confident, and refusing to settle for a loveless and antagonistic marriage. There is also specific mention of the fact that “[a]lthough written in a historical period in which the condition of the woman was not very favorable, Jane Austen offers us an intelligent, strong and determined protagonist” (back cover). This blurb being the only outside information and context on Pride and Prejudice before reading the actual text primes the reader to expect an independent and self-assured female main character, something that would appeal to people in search of literature (classic or not) with such a protagonist. So, the cover’s display of Elizabeth’s contrasting dress and strong qualities paint the novel in such a way that an audience looking for strong female characters would find inviting.
In total, by emphasizing the Regency-era fashion synonymous with Pride and Prejudice, the cover published by Brain Books initiates thought about the novel’s themes of class and clothing, something that people familiar with the story and average classic literature enjoyers would be privy to. This appeal to experienced readers of classic literature is also hammered home by the lack of biography for author Jane Austen, deemed unnecessary to readers because they most likely already know who she is and her importance. Additionally, the colorization of Elizabeth’s dress highly contrasting with not only the environment but also to Mr. Darcy’s suit signals to prospective readers that Elizabeth is the focal point of the story, as opposed to solely courtship or fashion- something people looking for representation of a fleshed-out, strong female protagonist would find intriguing. This method of enticement is also evidenced by the back cover blurb’s focus on Elizabeth’s convention breaking and strong-mindedness, rather than just overall plot. All in all, the fact that so many drastically different covers and readings of Pride and Prejudice exist speaks to the novel’s evergreen themes, characters, and general charm, something that will continue to speak volumes for decades to come.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Las Vegas: Brain Books, 2022.
Blackman, Cally. 100 Years of Fashion Illustration. Laurence King Publishing, 2007.