Reading the Collections, Week 29: Brontë Book Covers
For this post we will take a look at some of the different bindings and covers of Wuthering Heights in our collections. Some of these covers, pictured above, may look uninspiring at first but they can show how publishing and book buying has changed over time. Although we will briefly consider some titles from the Main Library, most of the books discussed here come from the Hargreaves Collection, which was given to the University Library in late 2012. All 800 volumes in the collection have been catalogued and can be found on SAULCAT. One of the interesting aspects of the collection is that it contains many different versions/editions of the same work, allowing changes to be traced and compared.
The Hargreaves Collection holds 20 different editions of Wuthering Heights – the earliest from 1848. These early editions contain Emily Brontë’s novel bound together with her sister Anne’s text Agnes Grey and prefaced by Charlotte Brontë; some may also have been edited to an extent by Charlotte (this article written by Roger Lathbury discusses the early publication of the text). This Brontë amalgam is perhaps troubling to modern readers used to approaching these classics as distinct works by individual authors. For example, this binding from 1889 which simply has “Wuthering Heights etc. E&A Brontë” on the spine, seems odd as it reflects this lack of distinction.
Some of these early editions also contain the pen names adopted by the Brontë sisters alongside Charlotte’s revelation of who Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell really were (read Charlotte’s full Biographical Notice on the British Library webpages). The confusion this unfixed authorship presented for publishers and readers alike is exemplified by the title page of our 1848 copy, which declares: “Wuthering Heights, A Novel by The Author of ‘Jane Eyre’”, when Jane Eyre was written, of course, by Charlotte not Emily, by Currer not Ellis.
The book’s binding deftly side-steps the muddle within by giving an overarching and singular author: “Brontë”, on the spine.
Although, so far, the books are bound in rather muted tones, with minimal information, those familiar with book history will recognise that such bindings were not designed to sell the text within, as described in this British Library article; rather books were bound by individuals after they were bought or the bindings were used to identify different publishers. Dust jackets were also not commonly used, and designed cover jackets were even scarcer, as this Victoria and Alert museum webpage explains.
Some of the editions do have more decorated bindings. The Hargreaves Collection contains examples of more mass-produced books, all bound alike in a series, for example the “Standard Fictions” within this “Cheap Series”. The covers are embellished with small bows and are, or were, a brighter hue. This series also proudly states on the front cover “Price Half-a-Crown”:
The back of this 1860 Wuthering Heights is crammed with reviews, acting as endorsement and advertising. It is tricky to make out, but the comments are about the publication of Jane Eyre within the same series, noting how “The editions […] place these standard works within the reach of all classes” (Plymouth Herald).
Another series from the same publisher but a little later (from 1889), again presents the Brontë sisters’ texts together, but in a more attractive binding than the self-proclaimed “Cheap Series”. It offers the option to buy individual titles or the set, and explains the differences in how they are bound, shown in an advert within the book. The suggestion is that the set is ornate, presented in a case for show and the binding itself is, literally, valued.
Considering the description above, our example looks to have come from the set “bound in cloth, with gilt top”:
When we enter the 20th century, specifically the 1960s, the covers, from a dust jacket and from a paperback edition, move to emphasise elements from within the individual texts through artwork:
The World’s Classics edition, on the right above, displays a simple, somewhat naive drawing, which may be reminiscent of a school textbook, while the Pan Books edition appears more melodramatic, evoking romantic fiction.
Inside the back flap of the World’s Classics dust jacket there is a note about the text which attempts to establish its authority, stating that this edition contains the book “as Emily Brontë wrote it”:
The Pan edition, however, is packaged to be of interest to the “general reader” and “the student” alike as it states on the back cover; it is prized for “readab[ility]” rather than provenance.
The first page of the Pan edition even contains a note on the cover art. This note seems to highlight how Heathcliff and Catherine have been rendered in a more exaggerated or simplified way by stating that the painted image “symbolically depicts” the characters:
Arguably, this type of image helps to align the text with popular fiction genres. Focus on particular elements of the text aims to attract specific audiences and it is clear that cover art and binding play a part in how a book is sold. More modern covers have taken hold of the Gothic elements and/or the characters’ thwarted love to bring a Twilight-esque cover and tongue-in-cheek pulp fiction Casablanca-era Humphrey Bogart artwork respectively (these examples are not currently in our collection). The text within is the same but the cover signifies differing approaches.
As you might expect, our holdings position Wuthering Heights as a literary text. For ease of use, some of the borrowable editions to be found on the shelves of the Main Library have had their dust jackets removed and the paperbacks have been given a protective covering. Cared for and well-maintained, the aesthetics of these editions comes second to giving you access to the text, although they may continue to attract the browsing eye.
The covers include drawings of the moors and abstract images, projecting a sombre seriousness.
If you are interested in viewing more book covers and bindings, from early editions to more modern examples, you can do this online or in person. You can see thumbnails of book covers on SAULCAT:
You can consult, see up close and touch, the real thing by requesting copies from our Special Collections to consult in our Reading Room in Martyrs Kirk, and you can also view early book covers in some of our databases, for example ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online).
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