Jane Austen Illustrators: Imagining Sense and Sensibility

“Four years you have been engaged?” said she with a firm voice.  

“Yes; and Heaven knows how much longer we may have to wait. Poor Edward! It puts him quite out of heart.” Then taking a small miniature from her pocket, she added, “To prevent the possibility of mistake, be so good as to look at this face. It does not do him justice to be sure, but yet I think you cannot be deceived as to the person it was drew of. — I have had it above these three years.”  

She put it into her hands as she spoke, and when Elinor saw the painting, whatever other doubts her fear of a too hasty decision, or her wish of detecting falsehood might suffer to linger in her mind, she could have none of its being Edward’s face. She returned it almost instantly, acknowledging the likeness. Lucy Steele & Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 22 

With the recent viewing of the mini-series of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility on Masterpiece Classic fresh in my mind, it is interesting to remember the very first images of Jane Austen’s characters depicted in print in 1833, and published by Richard Bentley, London. This edition was the first illustrated edition of Sense and Sensibility to be published in England, and contained only two images; one a full page illustration on the frontis page of Elinor Dashwood and Lucy Steele, and the other a vignette on the title page of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood. The steel- engravings were by William Greatbatch after a painting by George Pickering. (Gilson 127)

Since the artist was faced with the prospect of an entire volume to interpret, one wonders why the two scenes that are depicted were selected. I believe that they were excellent choices, revealing breakthrough moments in the story; Elinor’s discovery that Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy Steele, and the seriousness of Marianne’s illness. In hindsight, if I had been at the illustrator’s ear in 1833, I would have suggested Willoughby’s gallant rescue of the fallen Marianne, or Fanny Dashwood’s discovery of Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy Steele. The publisher Bentley who commissioned the artwork obviously thought that the story was about the two sisters depicted, and rightly so. 

It is also interesting to note that no care was taken in depicting the era appropriate attire in the illustrations. Elinor Dashwood and Lucy Steele sport the larger bonnets and fuller skirts of the early Victorian age in an attempt to appeal to the readers of 1833. Gone are the out of fashion Empire wasted frocks and simple bonnets. The publisher Richard Bentley had purchased the copyright of all six of Jane Austen’s novels, and being a businessman marketed them in a modern light. He would continue to re-issued this edition separately and in sets, and publish them in this format until 1892. 

The repose of the latter became more and more disturbed; and her sister, who watched with unremitting attention her continual change of posture, and heard the frequent but inarticulate sounds of complaint which passed her lips, was almost wishing to rouse her from so painful a slumber when Marianne, suddenly awakened by some accidental noise in the house, started hastily up, and with feverish wildness, cried out — 

“Is mama coming?” Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 43

Source citation: Gilson, David, “Later publishing history, with illustrations”, p. 127 Jane Austen in Conext, edited by Janet Todd, Cambridge Univeristy Press (2005)

1 thought on “Jane Austen Illustrators: Imagining Sense and Sensibility

  1. -Very- interesting. They sure look uncomfortable in that Victorian getup; I imagine Willoughby lopsided as he lugged Marianne through the rain (which, with all that excess fabric, would make her all the more heavy!).

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