Willie Lieberman is a third-year student in the History honors program specializing in European Studies.
March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate women’s accomplishments throughout history, address past and present injustices, and pave the path to a more liberated future for all women. The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library is home to a wealth of collections by significant female authors like Sylvia Plath and Alice Walker. One of the Rose Library’s most exciting features is its Jane Austen collection. Jane Austen is one of the best-known and most successful female authors. Active from the late eighteenth century through the Regency era in England, Jane Austen published six full-length novels that garner widespread praise to this day. The adoration of Jane Austen’s female-centered stories, like Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1816), and Sense and Sensibility (1811), is evident in the constant demand for modern film and television adaptations. The Rose Library’s Jane Austen holdings signify her commercial success and the value of her writing to society, while also pointing to inequities female authors faced in publishing.
If you were to recognize a Jane Austen book cover, this would be the one. The Rose Library has an original 1894 “Peacock edition” of Pride and Prejudice. The stunning, distinctive cover art on this deluxe version is widely reproduced to this day, and the detailed drawings continue throughout the book. The book’s illustrator, Hugh Thomson, signed the volume we have here at the Rose Library.
One of the Rose Library’s rarest holdings is our complete set of first edition Jane Austen novels. These first editions are in triple-decker format. Triple deckers, or three-volume novels, were a common way to publish fiction in nineteenth-century England. Three-volume novels were meant to capture the reader’s interest in the first volume so that the reader would feel compelled to purchase the other two. In Jane Austen’s time, these volumes were made of uncut pages that the buyer would have to bind themself. A highlight of the Rose’s collection is the Pride and Prejudice triple-decker. This edition from 1813 was originally owned by Charlotte Ashburnham, Countess of Ashburnham.
The Rose is home to one of the finest Yellowback collections in the world. Yellowbacks were inexpensive, two-sided books that were a distinctly British phenomenon. Vendors sold Yellowbacks at railways during the Victorian era. The covers were colorfully decorated and the stories were meant to be suspenseful and dramatic to appeal to a new audience of readers, the middle class. Publishers reproduced novels written by authors like Mark Twain and Jane Austen. Austen’s book Northanger Abbey was a popular reproduction because of its suspenseful and scary plot. Emory’s Yellowback collection is largely digitized and will soon be available through Emory Digital Collections.
Companies reproduced Jane Austen’s novels in these Yellowbacks without legal trouble because she signed a series of unfair and unprofitable publishing deals in her lifetime that carried on past her death. Women were not allowed to sign contracts independently, and they could only publish books anonymously. Despite the inequalities she faced, Jane Austen’s stories are some of the most popular in the history of literature, and her name is not one we will soon forget. Women’s history month is a perfect time to celebrate Jane Austen’s work and legacy, and her enduring praise is a testament to women’s strength and capability.