About two years ago, we had a conversation on this blog about how some publishers were attempting to capitalize on the popularity of books like Twilight in order to market nineteenth-century fiction to young adult readers. Various publishers were re-packaging books by, for instance, the Brontës’, with covers they thought might be more appealing to young adult readers.

See, for example, the cover of Penguin’s Illustrated Jane Eyre by Goth artist Dame Darcy:

We also discussed Harper Collins’s 2009 re-branding of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as “Bella and Edward’s favorite book”:

The New York Times picked up on this continuing issue yesterday and has provided an update on the success of re-branding Victorian fiction. For instance, “the HarperCollins edition of Wuthering Heights has sold 125 000 copies since it was released in 2009, an extraordinary number that sent the book back to the best-seller list.” Apparently, a Manhattan Barnes and Noble has been successfully marketing new editions of books by the Brontës — and by Jane Austen (?!?!) — alongside popular young adult paranormal romances.

The new Puffin edition of Dracula mentioned in the article: “We had that Urban Outfitters customer in mind.”

But what I found particularly interesting is how the NYT article framed the issue of updating the covers of these Victorian novels. For one thing, the article, and many of the people interviewed in it, seemed to be assuming that previous mass market covers of these books — covers described as “those familiar, dour depictions of women wearing frilly clothing” — were somehow more authentically Victorian, (indeed, they are criticized as too “Victorian”) when, of course, they were also only an exercise in branding the fiction by publishers in the twentieth century. I suspect that many a twentieth-century cover of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights has only a very loose relationship to the historical reality of, say, Victorian fashion or the content of the novels. (Another publisher, Splinter, who has re-designed the covers on their line of Classics (see the Jane Eyre below) also criticizes earlier covers because “[a] lot of the old covers don’t convey some of the feminist ideas that the books hold.”)

What is even more fascinating to me, however, is that those “familiar, dour depictions of women wearing frilly clothing” are emblematic of the “classic” status of Victorian fiction, a status that seems to matter deeply for some readers. That is, some of the readers quoted in the article were less interested in the paranormal romance dimension of this fiction, or how “up-to-date with a vengeance” Victorian fiction could be in the twenty-first century, and more invested in reading the books because of the canonical and cultural weight they carry.  The article closes with a quote from a young reader who insists, “[i]t’s fun to have the originals in your house to look at and show people…It kind of goes with the feeling of the classic as something that’s treasured, something that you want to keep. The new covers make the books look like cheap romance novels.” This strange description of the dour/frilly covers as “original” is an oversight that extends far beyond this young reader; it seems to me that it is an oversight that the whole debate over “contemporary” covers rests on.

What do you think, readers? Would you consider assigning editions with some of these new covers to your students or do you think they would prefer the covers that mark the books as “classics”? Do you have a favorite Victorian novel cover? (I really love the photographs that Broadview uses on their covers, for instance.)

The haunting image of “Lewis Payne, a Conspirator, in Sweater, Seated and Manacled” (1865) on the cover of Broadview’s edition of Felix Holt, The Radical.

7 thoughts on “Young Adult Readers and Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Part Two

  1. Fascinating stuff! I am wondering though about those editions with no cover at all, I.e. the rise of popularity in Victorian novels among many reading demographics through free e-reader editions. I’ve heard students are refusing to buy any print editions at all, arguing that they are free online.

    1. That’s a good point, Karen. A few students in my undergraduate Victorian lit class preferred to use a free e-book instead of purchasing a paper copy in the assigned edition — but it was only a handful of them. I haven’t developed any kind of guideline or policy on the use of e-book editions in class. I, of course, want the students to save their money where they can, but then we have the problem of a lack of page numbers, explanatory notes and other parts of the critical apparatus etc., which can be especially difficult during class lecture and discussion. I would love to hear from others about their experiences of student use of free e-reader editions of course texts.

  2. For some reason, the one type of cover I can never stomach is the “Now an Acclaimed Major Motion Picture” reprint. My Vintage edition of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go even has the film’s ‘R’ rating on the back, along with the film adaptation’s credits.

    My favorite covers are almost always Broadview’s. The photographs Broadview chooses almost never jump out at me as obviously indexing the novel within, but they often have a very subtly evocative power. I always love their portraits, especially the criminal beefcake poses like the Felix Holt posted above. (Caleb Williams does pretty well in this regard too.)

  3. I see your criminal beefcake pose, Gregory, and I raise you a feckless suburbanite:


    I completely agree on the evocative excellence of Broadview’s covers. I love the portraits of women, too, whether they be stoic or sassy:


    Thanks for this post, Jen!

  4. Oooh, I see a conference title in the works here:
    “Criminal Beefcakes and Feckless Suburbanites: Poses of Masculinity in Broadview Editions of Victorian Fiction”

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