Edith & Jane, and Penguins

I have never been a good sleeper, but over this past summer I developed a very regular sleeping pattern:  I wake up exactly at 4:00 every morning. If only I was a farmer–or worked for the Today show! After a few weeks of tossing and turning, I now get up and do something–generally read or write–so not to wake my soundly-sleeping husband. I’ve been reading Edith Wharton all summer, so her characters are often the last thing I’m thinking about when I fall asleep. When I wake up at 4:00 (and believe me, it is always precisely at 4), I generally go upstairs to my study, which is lined with academic books that seem far too intimidating for that early in the morning–and Jane Austen. So I pick up Jane, and read for a couple of hours. And then I fall asleep for a half-hour or so, and wake up with “memories” of odd Wharton-Austen mash-ups:  Lily Bart from The House of Mirth is navigating Regency society rather than that of New York; Anne Elliot from Persuasion is sitting quietly in a Gilded Era drawing room rather than back in Bath. I’m all confused when I wake up.

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Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Edith Jones Wharton (1862-1937).

Now I’m sure that I’m not the first person to draw comparisons between these two iconic authors, who captured their relatively rarefied worlds a century apart. They both write about women, women who face social, economic, and cultural constraints. Jane’s women face different constraints than Edith’s, but the latter’s more modern characters seem to be living in a darker world, without much help, from either their creator or their fellow characters. I think that’s why I’m engaging in these subconscious mash-ups:  I want to rescue Edith’s young women by transporting them back to Austenland, where Jane will take care of them. Lily Bart and Summer‘s Charity Royall are certainly not as nice, and consequently deserving, as Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, but they have no family, no hope, and no future in Wharton’s script. Jane would do better by them, I think. I have no idea why I would transpose Austen characters to turn-of-the-century New York:  they would not do well there.

Apart from this brief foray into lit crit and armchair psychology, this post provides yet another opportunity to showcase my absolutely favorite books, as nearly all of my Austen volumes are Penguin Clothbound Classics with covers designed by Coralie BickfordSmith. And now I find that there are companion Wharton volumes in Penguin’s relaunched English Library line of more affordable paperbacks, also with Bickford-Smith covers. I just love the whole idea of book design in this digital age.

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Some Penguin Wharton Covers, and the Penguin 150th anniversary volume, Three Novels of New York, with cover design by Richard Gray.

Edith House of Mirth Penguin English Library

Edith Wharton Ethan Frome Penguin

Edith and Jane

11 responses to “Edith & Jane, and Penguins

  • Matt

    The picture of Edith Wharton seems so typical of that age. I can’t tell if that pose was considered comely in their time, or if women then suffered from acute exhaustion. Jane, by contrast, looks ready for a chat.

    • daseger

      That is an official photograph issued by Edith’s publishers, so I suppose they wanted her to look that way: serious. As for Jane, all of her images are based on a sketch her sister Cassandra made, which is somewhat less “pretty” than all of its derivatives.

  • markd60

    I am a world famous insomniac. I wake up ever morning at 2, 4 and 5. Then I lay till the alarm goes off at 5:30. But if I got up, I’d never get any sleep.
    I like reading old books though

  • Brian Bixby

    Turning to another female author, I loved the cover to Penguin’s paperback edition of Emily Bronte’s poems, a sketch she did of a tree. Sadly, they’ve changed the cover since I bought my copy.

  • Secret Gardener

    Those are so pretty—And no two more deserve the greatest possible presentation.
    I remember when I first realized that books were being published with deliberately beautiful covers. First I stumbled across Virago in the library. The most delicious set of authors–all women–from one never-disappointing source, that I’d ever lucked in to.
    Then- late 90s I guess?- I noticed that paperbacks in bookstores were using that kind of art, or even more intriguing to me, details from it.
    Then my mother discovered Persephone Books (http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/) which makes art OF the book cover.
    AND wonderful, utterly unfairly neglected, women authors.
    I’s wondered my whole life why more things couldn’t be made to look nice–Which, of course, brings me to arts & crafts, William Morris, and then the
    Hogarth Press.

  • Melinda

    And re sleep patterns, check out this fascinating study of the history of night and darkness in the western world–
    One of the most interesting points discussed is that before the industrial age and artificial lighting humans typically went to bed with the dark, awoke in the middle of the night when they may had conversation, etc., and then returned to sleep until dawn.

  • Secret Gardener

    Not to keep piping up endlessly—But I was really knocked out by that idea too. I was aware of light pollution & its consequences– sadder & less controllable for wildlife, in fact all non-human forms of life–
    but so intrigued by the notion, which made perfect sense, that when the season was one of lengthy darkness each day, the sleep-cycle would bring you to consciousness at some point before daybreak, so far before it that there was a natural episode of activity before another opportunity to go back to sleep for the rest of the night.
    “The time between the two bouts of sleep was a natural and expected part of the night and, depending on your needs, was spent praying, reading, contemplating your dreams, urinating, or having sex.”
    I couldn’t help but imagine that this might have been the time for visions, for a kind of meditative thought, for deep & productive reasoning, for being struck by original & creative ideas . . .and I wish that there might be a way of retrieving accounts–from diaries & notebooks, for instance, that were recorded with some indication of time as well as of date. –It would certainly have been helpful in recording dreams while they were fresh, which would help explain the prominence of vivid ones–though probably clarified & assigned meaning subsequently, depending upon the purpose– in the history of story-telling in aid of myth, religious principles, autobiography, and . . . monomania?

  • daseger

    Thanks for all of these references, ladies: I am totally fascinated by the ideas of both the history of night and the history of sleep!

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