Sunday, 6 May 2012

Penguin Classics in Hardcover

I couldn't help drooling over these delectable covers when I saw them at Waterstone's this weekend. Yup, Penguin Classics has launched a hardcover version. The usual black jacketed editions cost about 8 pounds, the hardcovers 15, which is a little steep, but considering that most hardcover fiction is around 15-20 (many times it's 20), 15 is not really a bad deal. I have indulged far too much on books this year (shock, horror!) which isn't good, as I have to set some aside when I do my internship in Cornwall this summer. No, it's not a literature-related job, it's in a lab. My degree is in biochemistry in case you're wondering. My old literature teachers back at school, seeing how obsessively Victorian I was, said I should be taking up a literature course but oh well ..

Here's Mansfield Park. It's made me want to read Jane Austen, which is something you never see me doing.
 I have as a matter of fact read Jane Austen years ago, when I was in my teens, and I found her boring, though her characters are well-drawn and the incidents convincing, so don't blast me for not reading her. :P Nowadays I only ever read P&P primarily because it's funny, but honestly I think her masterpiece would be Persuasion.  So far I've read Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. I read through part of Mansfield Park before getting put off by the sheer dullness of the language and events and thoughts. Jane Austen is good at drawing ordinary gentry, I grant her, but exceptional individuals are beyond her. As literature is supposed to imitate life, she is actually doing the right thing. Most famous classics have exceptional characters, which I like, but which can be a bad thing, as they don't reflect typical things in society. But as authors of classics are often intelligent people, naturally they would write about intelligent heroes, which you don't find much in most fiction (at least not in a convincing way). Jane Austen has the virtue of writing ordinary things about ordinary people with greater realism. Most ordinary books do not have shrewd character portrayals, and many extraordinarily good books don't either. I suppose readers like ordinary characters (understandably) but the added convincingness makes Austen a classic. I just wish she wouldn't give all her heroines happy endings, it is too unconvincing for a convincing author. Though she had to conform to the fictional norms of her times.

Wonderful! It comes with two introductions, one by a modern scholar paid by Penguin, one by an old well-known scholar called Tony Tanner, a Jane Austen expert.

Here's Persuasion.

The green cloth with leaves is simply delicious. Now Sense and Sensibility's cover is rather sickly sweet, though yay! It comes with Tony Tanner as well!

And, of course, the lovely Pride and Prejudice.  What pretty swans. 

Jane Eyre's cover is a sheer autumn delight. It's really dark grey, not black or brown. The grey is a fairly neutral grey, no brown lights in it at all. I feel so tempted to buy it! Must resist the force - I have just spent a fortune on a 1922 hardcover Villette. The real reason I got it was it had illustrations by the well-known illustrator, Edmund Dulac, illustrator of late 19th century and early 20th century editions of classics. He did the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and the Brontës. Lest you shriek in horror at the cost, it was really 27 pounds. I think in America antique books are more expensive, I saw a version at some website for $80 or something. I wonder why? The publisher for this edition is American. I also got a copy of Hazlitt's biography by Duncan Wu. I wanted to get the collectible first edition but it was more expensive than the paperback. So I got the paperback (oh well, at least it's light. When I return to my country at least my luggage won't be overweight.)

Wuthering Heights' cover features some interesting looking stalks. Very suitable, Emily loved to roam the wild, wild moors. (I just realised I was quoting Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci "wild wild eyes.") I like the paperback cover though, so if I ever get the book (which I probably won't, since my shelf is full of thick biographes) it will be the Penguin Classics paperback.
Middlemarch is stately and gives an old air. I like the cameo-looking portraits.

Hard Times
is surprisingly pastoral. Isn't it set in an industrial town?

I shall be bankrupted soon. Still, I hasten to reassure myself, compared to the cost of books in the Victorian era, today's hardcovers are cheap.  A new clothbound book in the 19th century (I mean a nice thick classic of course)  would cost over 1 pound, which is around 50 today. At 15 it is a fraction of the price. Also, a middle-class individual then would earn a few hundred pounds a year (1000 was considered pretty good, unless you had a large family), hence a few tens a month. Assuming a Victorian earned 50 a month, that would be 1/50 his monthly income. I don't know the middle-class income nowadays in the UK (I'm from another country), but it's got to be above 2000 a month definitely, more like above 3000. Let's say 3000 for example. 15/3000 = 1/200. But then remember the Victorians paid low tax, which isn't what a Socialist Government advocates. :( I used to be a Socialist in my teens until I came to the UK and realised the horrible tax rates, which is a horrible price to pay for equality methinks. But then my country has low tax rates (28% corporate tax, which is the highest tax rate). A middle-class person would pay about 20-25%. If you pay the maximum you're well-off.  But I digress.

They even have Homer's Odyssey! With an old translation by E.V. Rieu. I love older translations, they use more antiquated English. Also, since most good students then learnt Latin and Greek, the standard of Latin and Greek translations then would be much better than today, since those are uncommon subjects in school now. Also they were very fussy over translations.  While I think no one should be forced to learn Latin and ancient Greek, it's sad the standards have fallen. I understand that A-Level Latin is quite easy now.

I love Shakespeare's cover. Very poetic.

I was hoping they'd have Paradise Lost, so I'd have an excuse for buying the book, but no such luck. :(

My grandmother asked me what I want for a birthday present. I think I know what to tell her now. 

I confess a base thought. These lovely books will probably one day in the future be considered valuable special editions and fetch a price 10 times higher. For those who love collecting books, I encourage you to get them now while Amazon sells them comparatively cheap.


  1. I love these covers, another one I really like is the design for Madame Bovary.

  2. I've got to confess I usually don't pay much attention to covers, but your comments interested me. The Mansfield Park cover probably has to do with the the predicament Fanny gets into over a chain for a cross her brother gave her - symbolizing the way the Crawfords manipulate those around them.

    The Middlemarch cameos are certainly appropriate, as are the waves on The Odyssey.

  3. I have a real fondness for this series, because the Jane Eyre that got me started reading classics (only this past winter!) was this lovely hardcover edition. The introductory essay and endnotes were really helpful in tackling what was, for me, the most challenging fictional read I'd tried in a long time. I've also read D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover from this series, but the endnotes were nothing special and the introductory essay actually had some serious and annoying grammatical errors!

  4. I have a copy of Mansfield Park with that cover, from Shakespeare& Company.