Sunday, 30 July 2017

Cabinet of Curiosities: Collins' Classics & Jane Austen by Charlotte Wightwick

This month the History Girls have a Jane Austen theme so when it came to considering what to put into the Cabinet of Curiosities, it seemed only appropriate to bring my own little piece of Jane Austen with me – my copies of her novels.

I’m not one of those people who go on constantly about how wonderful printed books are over and above e-books: I love my Kindle, and with good reason (holidays, it turns out, are much more fun when you aren’t lugging 10 paperbacks around. Hating what you’re reading on a 4-hour train journey? Not a problem!)

However my Jane Austen novels are special to me.

They were given to me by my grandparents. I was a bookish teenager and had actually read Austen previously – my mum’s copies, when I was about 12 – and just hadn’t got her. Too much sitting around talking, not enough stuff happening (I know, I know – all I can say is that I was young.) So I said ‘thank you’ politely and wondered what on earth I was supposed to do with a set of books which a) we already had in the house and b) I knew I didn’t like (even though they were Classics).

Then came that adaptation in the mid-90s and I realised that, wet shirts aside, Jane Austen was funny. Really, really funny. And sad and clever and romantic and wonderfully, wonderfully human. So I was off, re-reading the lot within weeks and falling irrevocably in love with her characters, her plots and her writing. And I read my own copies. Here they are:

They’re unlike any books I owned at the time.

They were obviously old – not ancient, but definitely not new (I can’t recall where my grandparents said they’d got them, sadly.) The title page informs me that they are part of ‘Collins Library of Classics’, although they contain no date of printing. A quick online skim says that they were published between 1903 and 1945, probably in the 1930s.

For another thing, they were small, much smaller than a standard paperback (6 x 4 inches rather than approx. 7.5 x 5), red-bound with gold lettering on the spine. The pages were made of much thinner paper than I was used to handling and each included a picture opposite the frontispiece. And they had that proper old-book smell.

 So having started by saying I love my Kindle – and I do – it is also right that reading Jane Austen is still a very different experience for me when I pick up my little red copies. I do have e-copies (and audiobooks too) and they are wonderful novels in whatever format I choose. But when I read them in their physical form, they look, smell and feel as they did that (second) time I read Jane Austen: they are excitement, discovery and emotion made real. And that’s what books should do, surely?


Joan Lennon said...


Leslie Wilson said...

Beautiful books, with fascinating illustrations.

Ms. said...

The perfect size and feel I'm partial to. Also just rereading Austin...specifically Mansfield Park (she was at the top of her form here) and though I keep falling asleep on the CD recording despite a very fine reader, I get lost in the language. Of course I play the discs in the morning as well so as not to miss anything, and I am reconsidering listening while I'm in bed.