The cover of the Macmillan Collector’s Edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is blocked into a painting of a woman (intended to be Elizabeth) on the front, and a portrait of a man, intended to be Mr. Darcy, on the back. The top third of the front cover is a pale blue with only the title and author embossed in gold print. Similarly, on the back, the blue space is occupied only with a very brief quote. The gilded edges, cloth binding, and faux-silk bookmark, combined with the cover design, emulate expense and class. Accordingly, in his afterword to the text, Henry Hitchings critiques modern reception and adaptations of the novel for flattening Austen’s work into pure romance and ignoring her sharp analysis of class and marriage (483). While the presence of the characters on the cover certainly implies a kind of relationship, a reader would not mistake the book for an irreverent romantic comedy. The novel appears to be gender-neutral, perhaps in hopes that it may appeal to all audiences. This could be seen as a progressive move ensuring the equality of masculine and feminine literature. However, despite this apparent dismissal of traditionally feminine genres and colors and attempts to classify the novel as strictly feminine literature, this cover ultimately reinforces conventions of beauty and betrays Lizzie’s lack of vanity.
Hitchings points to the marketing of the 1940 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to illustrate the way Austen’s analysis of the domestic sphere has been misconstrued. The film was advertised to women as a romp of marital shenanigans; as a cautionary tale for obsessive women and their lust for partnership (483). It is difficult to imagine that producers would have taken the same approach with a novel written by a man and centering on male characters. As Hitchings notes, the novel critiques performance and etiquette in class and personal relationships (488).
The cover of the Macmillan edition then rebels against the hyper-feminized and performative adaptations of Auten’s work; the brightest color is the pink of Lizzie’s lips. Their clothes are subdued and for Elizabeth in particular, do little to indicate the class backgrounds of the character. The characters are ostensibly stripped down to their essential selves, free from the constraints of their contemporary society.
The Inescapability of Male Desire
Part of Austen’s critique is on expectations for women, so it is odd that the woman on the cover of the book is so attractive. Elizabeth is repeatedly described as more “plain” than her sister; in fact, a large part of her relationship with Mr. Darcy hinges on his lack of attraction to her (Austen 12). She fulfills every beauty standard: she is fair-skinned, blonde, and pale-eyed, with blushing pink cheeks and rosy lips. At the same time, she is in the midst of braiding her hair, which is a way of altering her appearance. This isn’t just a snapshot; given that the painting was done in 1877, we can assume that this pose was deliberately chosen. This characterization contrasts how Austen established Elizabeth as having little to no concern with her appearance.
The most prominent example of Elizabeth's unaffected modesty is when she shows up at Netherfield completely soaked from the rain (Austen 33). This is, in fact, part of what fuels Mr. Darcy’s attraction (Austen 34). Additionally, the portrait of Lizzie is from 1877, meaning they likely favored feminine beauty over historical accuracy (Wells). Alternatively, the portrait of Mr. Darcy, while the year of the painting cannot be found exactly, is estimated between 1788 and 1827, which overlaps with the year the novel was published. Mr. Darcy does not stray from the description given in the book (and actually suspiciously resembles Matthew Macfayden) (Raeburn).
Elizabeth's Not Super Hot and That's Okay!
While the Macmillan Collector’s Edition is visually appealing and does combat some of the trivialization and hyper-feminization of the novel’s contents, it tries to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to assimilate into a male-dominated catalog of classic literature by dismissing femininity, while also upholding beauty standards to the point of historical inaccuracy. This is not at all limited to this edition. In the 2005 film adaptation, Keira Knightley, who is an objectively stunning woman, plays Elizabeth. No reasonable straight man would dismiss her as barely tolerable. The decision to make Elizabeth a blonde-haired beauty perpetuates the myth that desirability, specifically adhering to Western standards, is a necessity.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Edited by Hugh Thomson and Henry Hitchings, London, Macmillan Collectors Library, 2016.
---. Pride and Prejudice. New York, Penguin Books, 2012.
Heirloom Art Co. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Macmillan Classics.
Lazada. Collectors Library Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice Hardcover Fiction Books.
msbananaanna. “Hermoine: Bushy Dark Brown Hair, Brown Eyes, Large Buck Teeth (Never Described as Pretty or Ugly),” DeMilked, www.demilked.com/harry-potter-characters-appearance-books/.
Pride & Prejudice. Directed by Joe Wright, Universal Pictures, 2005.
Raeburn, Sir Henry. “Portrait of Commander Hugh Clapperton,” ArtNet.com, www.artnet.com/artists/sir-henry-raeburn/portrait-of-commander-hugh-cla…. Accessed 13 Feb. 2023.
Thomson, Hugh. “Superior Dancing,” Wikipedia Commons, 1894.
Wells, Henry Tanworth. “Alice, a Portrait,” Ciel Blue Media, 1877, cielbleumedia.com/2017/09/14/alice-a-portrait-by-henry-tanworth-wells-1877/. Accessed 13 Feb. 2023. https://cielbleumedia.com/2017/09/14/alice-a-portrait-by-henry-tanworth….
Wikipedia Contributors. “Pride and Prejudice (1940 Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Nov. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride_and_Prejudice_%281940_film%29#/media/File:Prideundprejudice.jpg. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.
Winterton, Ian. “Keira Knightley on “Pride and Prejudice.”” Ian Winterton, 31 Jan. 2019, ianwinterton.co.uk/keira-knightley-on-pride-and-prejudice/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.